Like the three wise men, Gary Rogers, Brian Gartland and Dane Massey used to sit beside each other in the corner of the Dundalk dressing room on a daily basis getting ready for training each day.
The retirement of Rogers, coupled with Massey’s departure for Drogheda Utd, means that Gartland will be a bit of a lone wolf – at least initially – when he reports back for pre-season training at the end of the month.
It’s not just those two have gone. Long-term colleagues such as Sean Gannon, Sean Hoare, John Mountney and even Aaron McCarey, who he had originally played with at Monaghan Utd, have also departed Oriel Park during the off-season.
By his own admission, Gartland said it will be a bit strange to be back at Oriel Park without some familiar faces but he has backed Filippo Giovagnoli to bring in the appropriate replacements to ensure Dundalk remain as competitive as ever next season.
“It’s going to be different for me because I sit between Massey and Rogie ever since we got the new dressing rooms there a couple of years ago,” said the defender.
“The three of us were always in the corner and I think there was about 100 years between us so we used to have a laugh at that. I’d be really close to them and they’d be really good friends, as would John Mountney, Sean Gannon, Robbie Benson who left last year, Sean Hoare and Aaron McCarey is another who I got on really well with as well.
“There are plenty of others but we’ve been together years and there are just so many great memories with them all in terms of what we did at the club.
“The fact they’ve gone, it’s football and you just have to get on with it. It’s part and parcel of the game and you can’t change it but it’s sad to see them go because, like I said, they’re my friends and I’ll be eternally grateful for what those lads did.
“They’re friends and team-mates and we’ve had great experiences but you’re also only as good as the players around you so every player who has been there in my time and especially these sort of guys I’ll be eternally grateful for what they helped both me and the club achieve.
“They’ve been phenomenal with their drive, their attitude and their dedication. I don’t think people realise the dedication it takes because everything else in your life is put on hold for what we try to do. You’re only as good as the players around you and I wouldn’t have had all the success or experiences without them. I’ve friends for life there.
“There’s always one or two who leave every year, that’s the nature of football, but there’s probably more than usual this year,” he said.
Gartland said he didn’t know much about the club’s new signings to date but insisted he had every faith in the club to bring in top players.
“You probably know more than me about them than me but I think you just have to have faith in your club and the people making these decisions that they’re bringing in the right people and I have that faith.
“We know the quality will be there and I’m sure they’ve checked into the character as well because it’s a massive thing to make it in this league. I’ve not looked into them too much because you can judge a player on a few highlights and they could be unbelievable highlights and they could just be an average player.
“I’ve seen people write us off already because they automatically presume we’re weaker but that just gives us more motivation. We’ve a good core there of 14 or 15 and then you’ve got all the lads coming in with international experience who can give you something different.
“It’s different and sometimes people are afraid of change because they don’t know what it is but we showed last year with the new manager coming in that we’re adaptable to change and we’re not afraid of it.”
It’ll be changed times for Gartland this year, that’s for sure, but while many faces will have changed, he is confident the success he has enjoyed for each of the last seven seasons at Oriel Park will continue in 2021.
While it might feel like a long way away right now, Brian Gartland cannot wait for the day he runs out at Oriel Park again to the roar of a packed crowd.
The veteran defender produced some of the best football of his career in the second half of last season under Filippo Giovagnoli to earn himself a new deal for 2021. However, not even the silver lining of a second Europa League group stage campaign and another FAI Cup win could make up for the fact that all bar five minutes of competitive action for him last season took place behind closed doors.
While it is unlikely that fans will be present whenever the 2021 season gets underway – currently pencilled in for March 19th – Gartland is hopeful that sometime this year supporters will be back cheering on their teams.
“It’s a massive loss,” he said of fans being missing for almost a year.
“When we went on the European journey and to the Cup final it was never moreso evident than there. There was half the buzz to it than there usually was when you’re winning the Cup or when you’re going out to play in the Emirates or the Aviva against Arsenal. Usually you’d have tens of thousands there and you do miss that and the buzz that goes with it when you’re going away to London etc.
“You’d usually be getting texts and videos sent to you from the fans in the pubs etc. The fans missed out on all that but we missed it too because you take so much joy from giving your friends and family these days out.
“They get so much out of it and as a player you take so much pride that you’ve given them that day. It’s not the same without them but I suppose we just have to get on with it for now.”
With Dane Massey having signed for Drogheda Utd and Jordan Flores departing for Hull City, it’s fair to say that Gartland’s contract extension for 2021 makes him the last of last season’s squad to re-commit for the forthcoming campaign.
While he might have been the last man in of last year’s squad, the 34-year-old admits he never doubted it would happen.
“The club and the gaffer had told me a couple of months before that they wanted me there and wanted me involved. Filippo said it again before the end of the season so it was just a case of getting the offer formally in writing and then getting it done.
“There is always talk when something isn’t announced but Filippo, Giuseppe and Shane had let me know they wanted me to stay and we had talked about what was on offer so it was always going to happen in my mind but it was just slow in terms of completing it. That was it.”
While confident he brings quality such as leadership to the fold, Gartland was delighted to hear his manager said he had been re-signed first and foremost on the back of a series of impressive displays since he took charge last August.
“Especially the experienced players and lads who have been at Dundalk a while, we like to think there is a humbleness about us and a realism. We know when we’re good and we know when we’re crap. There’s no papering over cracks with a lot of us and yeah I was happy with a lot of my performances in the second half of last season. I enjoyed my football too so it’s nice to hear he said that because for the last couple of years a lot of focus was on people thinking you’re winding down or you’re there for other reasons other than for what you do on the field.
“First and foremost, I’m always there to compete. If I can’t compete I don’t want to be in a team just being carried along.
“I like to think I do bring that other stuff to the table but first and foremost you’ve got to bring performances and contribute that way,” he said.
Dundalk defender Brian Gartland is anxious to see the League of Ireland return as soon as possible but understands further delays could be possible due to the large number of Covid-19 cases across the country right now.
As things stand the 2021 season is due to commence on March 19th but a combination of the current lockdown and other factors means that there is no real clarity on the situation just yet.
At present clubs are in the dark over whether there will be a sponsor for the league next season, if there will be a TV deal and what financial supports are available from Government – something which was vital in completing an 18-games season last year.
While the lack of clarity around the forthcoming season is a concern for many, Gartland said he had sympathy with the FAI over the current predicament they found themselves in.
“We’re going off the dates that the FAI have given us,” he said.
“I know they haven’t announced a sponsor yet for the league so maybe they’re trying to sort that or finalise that. They’re also trying to see what Government funding is there before committing to the season.
“I do have a bit of sympathy for the FAI in that regard because we saw last year that some clubs were saying they wouldn’t come back until the fans did and they were digging their heels in, literally for their own proposes. I understand that because it’s survival of the fittest and everyone is out to suit themselves but that seems to be the way it is again.
“As soon as there was a deal done last year on Government funding there were clubs throwing money around who didn’t want football back until the New Year. All of a sudden they were throwing money at players and there was a completely different make up of some teams compared to before the lockdown started. The FAI have to deal with that so I can’t lay all the blame with them.
“I can’t be too critical given everything that is going on right now but at the same time you want as concrete plans as possible for whatever scenario, whether it be an extra month or two weeks later than what they proposed.
“The funding supports, whatever they are, should be in place by now. I’d be very disappointed if it was a case of them making it up as they go along so I presume in the background that all this is being done and that there are plans for this scenario.”
Gartland and the rest of the Dundalk squad are currently on personalised programmes ahead of a planned return to pre-season training at the end of this month but he said those plans may need to be altered depending on whether or not the league starts as planned on March 19th.
“There is a management to it and we just have to go off the date that we’ve been given at the moment,” said the defender.
“If it does change and we have a plan that is already in motion then that then has to change and we have to adapt and change our plan. Everything we do and everything Graham Norton does for us up there, it is tailored for the players. Every day is planned well in advance from a certain date. He could then have to taper it back because he doesn’t want us to be overworked before the season starts.
“You want to make sure that you are primed right so it’s a juggling act in that regard for Graham but, as a player, you just want to get back and get the league going but we can understand why it’s not. When we’re told we’re playing we’ll play and that’s just it but to get yourself primed and right, it can be frustrating,” he said.
Last November Brian Gartland arrived at the Aviva Stadium on the verge of history.
He would produce a man of the match display on the day, picking up a new TV from Lally’s as a reward, but the ultimate prize of the FAI Cup and a treble eluded him as Shamrock Rovers won 4-2 on penalties.
Most of the talk over the close season last winter was about the Hoops and, to be fair to them, they’ve backed that up by being the best side domestically this season.
Nevertheless Gartland is determined to ensure that Dundalk put down a marker of their own at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday by showing that the Lilywhites are far from finished.
“There’s no motivation needed,” he said when asked about the final.
“They’ve been the best team in the country this year. I always say every year that the league doesn’t lie so they’ve been better than us throughout the year.
“Obviously last year to lose on penalties is a horrible way to lose a game. We’ve won on penos as well but it hurts. Now we’ve a great chance to go and make amends but it’s not all about that. It’s about us winning.
“Obviously you want a bit of a grudge and a bit of a rivalry. That has always been brilliant over the years with Cork. It adds needle to the game but if you want to win Cups you’ve got to beat the best teams and there’s no better place than the final to do it so hopefully we can.”
Gartland admits it has been a “poor season” by Dundalk’s lofty standards but says a Cup final is a “decent place” to end up at the end of it and is well aware that victory on Sunday can change how people view the club’s campaign.
“We were a penalty away from a clean sweep last year but that was quickly forgotten about. People always just fall upon the last game of the season, especially when it’s the two big teams playing. We came away from that and last season in the off season all you were hearing about was Rovers and them winning the Cup.
“In the back of your head you’re saying ‘hang on a sec, we’ve won every other trophy and although we didn’t play well in the final, it still went to penalties.’
“There is a bit of that to it that it can shape how the season is viewed. It can redeem us and change the complete mood and image of the season. It can paint a complete different picture.
“We’ve definitely had our ups and downs this year but if we can come away with the Cup on Sunday, with another Europa League group game to come and back in Europe next year with a Puskas nomination as well, that’s massive. There’s so much incentive for us because whoever wins the Cup that’s where the big pictures of the glory day come from that will be remembered at the end of the year.”
Dundalk’s preparations will be similar to 2016 when they arrived back from a Europa League game in Russia to face Cork City in the final. Gartland and co will be hoping for a different result on their return from Norway this week than when Sean Maguire won it for Cork at the very end of extra-time four years ago.
“We’ve won other games and not played as well,” reflected the 34-year-old. “In that game Finner was exceptional for us. We played very well but in the final third I think we just lacked a bit that year although Cork to be fair had a really tight defence and didn’t give much away.
“We’d have loved a week to prepare for the final but it is what it is, you just have to get on with it. You can’t change it so there’s no point moaning about it.
“We’re preparing from now.
“The Athlone result sums up the mentality in this club. We might have had a few off days this year but that drive and hunger is still there and nothing is taken for granted,” he said.
If you had said just a couple of months ago that Dundalk would be preparing for the Europa League group stages, many would have laughed at you.
Equally, if you had said Brian Gartland would be at the heart of the side for that run, it would have been even more unbelievable.
Largely frozen out at the start of the year, the centre half has enjoyed a new lease of life under Filippo Giovagnoli.
He admits that his enjoyment for the game had waned during the difficult days but it’s doubtful that anyone will have a bigger smile on their face when the sides line up at Tallaght on Thursday night than Gartland.
“You’re right. I wasn’t enjoying it,” he said.
“I really wasn’t, for different reasons. Now, it’s just nice to be able to concentrate on football and no other shite. I can just concentrate on getting my game right and having my mental side in a good space.
“I think my performances have improved and I’m happy enough with where I’m at. There’s always more, like there is in every player in the team and personally I hope there’s more levels for myself but to be back playing and competing, you can only but enjoy it and I’m a firm believer you’ll play your best football when you’re happy and carefree and enjoying it. That’s what football is about. It’s a game. Obviously it’s a job and everything that goes with it and we’re lucky to be able to do it for a living but when you’re enjoying it and carefree you’re playing your best stuff and getting more out of yourself.”
Gartland admits being written off by some people as “finished” was a driving force for him to get back to his best.
“Looking back I didn’t expect this but in life and particularly in football you can’t give up hope and you can’t stop trying. If you do then whoever is against you is winning. Whoever thinks you’re written off, you’ve proved them right.
“I tried to keep myself in a mental place where I kept working hard and kept myself right so that if I was called upon at any stage I could do a job for the team and wouldn’t let them down.
“I want to prove people wrong. A week is a long time in football and anything can be flipped on its head in a minute. We’ve seen that in the last while but if I hadn’t kept myself right I wouldn’t be in the team now.
“It’s the same for other people here. Look at Sean Murray and the role he has played in the last few weeks. Every player goes through that and thankfully it has come good. It could easily have went the other way and continued the way it was but I’m lucky it has come good and that I’ve had a bit of fortune and played a few games.
“I’m delighted to be fairly involved at the moment and hoping it can continue but nothing is certain so you’ve got to treasure every moment, especially the older you get in football.”
Thursday night will be another moment to treasure for Gartland. He’ll be hoping for a win, of course, but regardless of the outcome he’s happy to be where he is right now: back in form and enjoying playing again.