Shane Keegan has admitted Dundalk need to improve off the field as when as on it if they are to improve as a club.
For the third week in-a-row, the weekly press conference at Oriel Park last Wednesday was dominated by a talking point not directly related to the upcoming game.
In the latest debacle, Dundalk were shocked to learn that Sonni Nattestad would be banned for two matches following his President’s Cup red card, with the Faroe Islands defender set to miss the crunch games with Shamrock Rovers on Friday and Bohemians on April 9th as the first match of his ban couldn’t count against Finn Harps last weekend because he was on international duty.
Speaking about the matter, Keegan said: “We need to do our homework a little better.
“There has been a bit of turnover in the last while in terms of staff and we maybe weren’t as clued in as we needed to be.”
While Keegan’s comments highlight the fact that there isn’t a strong enough understanding of the FAI rules, supporters have been left increasingly frustrated by poor communication from the club in recent months.
On a personal note, I have made nine attempts to renew a season ticket dating back to last November with requests made in person and via email ignored while phone calls to Oriel Park have gone unanswered. I’m not alone in this regard.
Furthermore, as a player sponsor for the last few years it was surprising that I wasn’t asked again this year. Again, I’m not alone with one supporter of the club who has provided sponsorship over a 50 year period contacting me on Friday wondering why he hadn’t been asked. Those complaints might seem small fry but with 29 player sponsorship opportunities vacant as per Friday’s programme, that equates to income of over €10,000 that the club are potentially missing out, not to mention the loss of season ticket revenue.
For much of the past year the club has provided more drama than shows like Fair City and the simple things not being done is impacting the mood of a number of people at Oriel Park, most notably the players.
Friday’s match against Finn Harps might have been the first at Oriel Park this year but even last year after Harry Taaffe’s passing the usual sight of the pitch being brushed before kick-off and watered has been absent with no one seemingly taking up a task which infuriates the team when it doesn’t happen.
Keegan himself has spent much of the past few weeks and months dealing with paperwork in the office. For someone who is supposed to be the top man at the club now, that shouldn’t be his job. It’s almost the equivalent of hiring an architect to design an extension for your home and instead getting him to cut the grass.
Padraig McGowan has recently been appointed club secretary and while he has been a magnificent servant and supporter of the club over a long period, he is ultimately a volunteer who has a full time job in Dublin that is, rightly so, his priority.
For a club that is supposed to be the biggest in the country and aiming to be ‘the European club in Ireland’ it is baffling that the simple tasks are being overlooked and that jobs of great importance are being given to volunteers at a time when players are being recruited for presumably big sums from across the globe, some of whom will never be good enough for the first team.
As Keegan pointed out, there has been a high turnover of staff over the winter but Jim Magilton is now in his role as sporting director for three months.
He has brought some improvements already – that’s not in question – but it’s baffling that the club is in a situation where there are regular drone cameras flying above Oriel Park for promotional videos and yet the club can’t seem to respond to emails or pick up the phone.
A bit like the results on the field so far, the club must do better off it.
Dundalk FC chairman Bill Hulsizer has said the club will require grant supports to fulfil the long standing ambition of upgrading Oriel Park.
Qualification to the Europa League group stages has once again brought the dilapidated state of the Carrick Road venue into the spotlight, with Filippo Giovagnoli’s side unable to host home matches there as it fails to meet UEFA requirements.
With over €4 million income guaranteed from the club’s second group stage qualification in five seasons, fans had been hopeful that it would lead to a long awaited upgrade of a venue which has virtually remained untouched for more than half a century since a major redevelopment in 1966.
However speaking to The Argus at the weekend, Hulsizer admitted that club owners PEAK6 would be unwilling to cough up the full amount for an upgrade and would need financial support from one or a number of parties including Louth County Council, the FAI and Government.
“Would I love to see a Category 4 stadium half way between Belfast and Dublin? I absolutely would but do I think that we’ll win enough money at Dundalk to build a stadium in the next five years? No.
“We’ll make some improvements – we’ve already made a bunch – but our goal is if we invest money it’s to invest it in something that we’ll get a return on.”
While club owners PEAK6 have a current portfolio value of over $23.4 billion, Hulsizer said it would not make sense for the Chicago-based investment firm to pump money into a stadium project without having support behind them from various sectors.
“We need support to make it happen,” he said of any potential upgrade.
“Investing in a stadium is probably the worst thing a club can do because it’s just property and it’s not an asset unless it can make money. I don’t know that Oriel Park is situated where it can make money. It’s not big enough.”
Asked was there a ball-park figure to bring Oriel up to UEFA Category 4 standards, the chairman said: “If there is I don’t know what it is. “We’ve had architects look at it and we’re in the process now of getting other people to look at it.
“People look at it and say well they’re getting €3 million from Europe but let me tell you when all is said and done of that €3 million less than half will reach the coffers.”
While Hulsizer’s comments will undoubtedly come as a blow to many fans hoping for a long overdue stadium upgrade, he said the club had approached the FAI for support for a future upgrade project.
“The FAI is working hard to get a major grant to develop stadiums outside of Dublin and we have put our wishes and hat in the ring just like Finn Harps and Cork and others. I don’t know for a fact that either of them did but every team in the League of Ireland was asked to submit what their needs would be for improving the infrastructure.”
Dundalk FC owners PEAK6 had drawn up plans to upgrade Oriel Park prior to the lockdown of the country due to Covid-19.
While the plans did not meet board approval, chairman Bill Hulsizer revealed that work has been ongoing behind the scenes looking at options to improve the heavily criticised Carrick Road venue.
“That’s high up on the list,” Bill said, when asked where the stadium stood in his plans for the club’s future.
“Our commitment is long term. We’re trying to do some things for Co Louth and Dundalk town and hopefully after this virus is settled, we’ll get on with it.
“We had to put them on hold for a couple of reasons, none of which are really financial, but the man in charge of it had a personal issue and I made the decision to put that on hold while he had something to take care of. We’re now moving slowly because quite frankly we don’t know what the future holds or what is going to happen with Covid-19.
“At the moment everybody has to have a wait and see attitude.
“Do I think Oriel Park can be improved? Oh, absolutely. We’ve had designs done. They weren’t exactly what we needed and they weren’t presented the way we wanted but it was a good start. We have a committee that is actively looking into it.
“More than that, I can’t say much because everything is on hold right now but my desire is to have boys and girls from 12 down to six playing on those three pitches in the Lilywhite Development Centre. That’s not what we call it now but maybe we’ll rename it.
“It gives them something to do and it’s inside so they could play all winter long. We just have to do the detail but we’ve talked to the council and we will get it done,” he said.
As well as improving the ground, Bill also hinted at another facility which would cater for an improved youth structure at the club.
“We’d like to improve the capacity and we’d like to improve our commitment to youth,” he said.
“We have three indoor pitches inside in the YDC and we should have every young man and woman in there every weekend playing football. We’re looking to develop all of those things.
“We’re on the border with Northern Ireland and we’ve tried to promote a bunch of cross border things. We have a schoolboys’ league in Dundalk and I don’t think there’s enough connection with Dundalk FC. I think we’ve got better at it and we’ll get better still.
“There are lots of issues. We have four official teams in our underage group but I’d hope that by this time next year we’d have eight because the jump between U-13 and U-15 is a big jump. There are 14-year-olds that are men and 15-year-olds that are still boys and that’s a crucial time so if we can spend the money and make that gap more narrow then it can only be a good thing.”
Hulsizer said he was “flabbergasted” at the fact there were no municipal pitches in the Dundalk area.
“I live in a small town outside of Fort Lauderdale. I don’t know what the population is but we have at least 12 municipal pitches in my little town and Americans don’t play soccer apparently. Now that’s the past and it’s changing. I’m told more Americans are playing soccer now in Texas than football.
“If we want to develop football here then we should have places for the kids to play. If we wanted to have a schoolboy tournament with teams from Warrenpoint and Newry and other nearby areas, where would they play? We need more fields.
“We’re working on it and hopefully the county and the people will say ‘let’s do this’. I’d like to see Dundalk to be the centre of football in all of Ireland at every level. I’m a dreamer but I always say that if you’re going to dream, you may as well dream big.”
Asked would this be at Oriel Park, Hulsizer suggested it could be an additional venue.
“We don’t have enough time to have that kind of an event at Oriel Park. Oriel Park is used almost non-stop so there would need to be other places where the kids could play.
“Let’s say we took every club team within 25 mile between Drogheda, Newry, Warrenpoint etc. Let’s say that’s 30 clubs and we’re going to have a tournament involving them all. To play that over a three day weekend, how many pitches would you need? I’ve never organised one but I’ve been to many and my feeling is we don’t have enough pitches to do that.
“I worry sometimes too that, if we built them, would the kids use them?”
The 77-year-old said he was well aware there would be critics of his plans but said he was looking purely for an outsiders’ perspective at what he believed could be achieved.
“You need to give me a little slack because I don’t look at Dundalk like someone who grew up in Ireland. I have no pre-conceived notions of what it should be. I have only the background of being around the whole world and growing up in America with an Irish mom so I guess I’m the sum of all those inputs and I see things that maybe someone who walks down the streets of Dundalk every day doesn’t see but I love the town, I love the people, I love the team and I love football and the rest is to be determined.”
The owner of Oriel Park have insisted there is “no impediment” on Dundalk FC in upgrading the ground due to the club not owning it.
In an exclusive interview, Des Casey – whose family have leased the Carrick Road venue to the club since 1936 – said he would be happy to support PEAK6 with any plans they had to upgrade the stadium.
However, he said he has had no approach from them regarding any plans to renovate what has become the most criticised ground in the League of Ireland.
Last month Dundalk FC chairman Mike Treacy called for local and national government support to bring the stadium up to the standard of the team.
He told RTÉ Sport after Vinny Perth had guided the side to their fifth title in six seasons: “We have explored near-term quick fixes for Oriel Park, but the reality of the situation is we are not going to spend €5m to €6m to build a piece of real estate on land we don’t own.
“We need help from our county. We need help from our national, local government and the FAI. If you think about this place and Dundalk, Dundalk Football Club is a fabric of this community. This town deserves to have a stadium that is up to the standard of what we see on the pitch every day,” said Treacy.
However, Casey says owning the land is “no impediment” to upgrading Oriel Park, insisting that the rent of the ground for the six beneficiaries from the family is nominal with 73 years of a 99-year lease still to run, making it as good as their land.
“There is a 99-year lease on the ground and they can build or expand as part of that. They have a total licence to improve the place if they wish,” he said.
“The lease is totally geared for the viability of the football club and it will still be in place long after we’re all gone.
“The Casey family have not been approached with any regard to a development in Oriel Park but in the event that we were, we would be – as we were in the past – totally supportive.
“There’s no elephant in the room. As in the past, any improvement would just involve a consultation. There are certain impediments such as they can’t have any habitation on the grounds but any proposal to upgrade or do a makeover of the ground would have the full support of the Casey family,” said the former UEFA vice-president.
Casey also dismissed the suggestion that the club could not receive grants due to not owning the ground, pointing out that the Department of Tourism and Sport invested €1.25 million in Oriel Park in 2006 towards the installation of the artificial surface and Youth Development Centre.
“There has been no sports capital grant in Oriel since 2006, which is 13 years, but that is as much to do with management not seeking it as anything.
“The ownership of the land wasn’t an impediment then, nor is it an impediment now.”
Casey also re-iterated that his family had every intention of making Oriel Park available for the club as long as they wanted it.
“It’s for football as long as they want it,” he said.
“If they decide to leave that’s all right too but it’ll be there after we’re gone.
“It’s water-tight the lease. It gives them total and absolute control of everything within the four walls of the ground,” said the club president.
Vinny Perth says it was a ‘great honour’ to be entrusted with continuing his mentor Stephen Kenny’s legacy with Dundalk FC for the next two seasons at least.
The 42-year-old was officially appointed the club’s new head coach on New Year’s Day having taken over the running of the club following Kenny’s departure to take up the Republic of Ireland U-21 manager’s job at the end of November.
He will be joined in a new coaching set up by Ruaidhrí Higgins, who has been promoted from opposition analyst to assistant head coach, and John Gill, who has been appointed first team coach.
Gill, who guided Dundalk FC to the First Division title at the end of a three year spell in charge of the club in 2008, has the Pro Licence required to ensure the new management setup meets FAI requirements.
The trio teamed up with the squad for the first time on Saturday for the start of pre-season training where Perth oversaw the backroom team putting the players through their paces as they begin building towards the opening league match at home to Sligo Rovers on Friday February 15th.
Speaking on his appointment to The Argus, Perth said: ‘It’s a great honour that the board trusted me as soon as Stephen left.
‘We’re league champions, FAI Cup champions so for the club to turn to someone like me and say we need you to play a central role in how we move forward as a club and create continuity was a real honour for me and my family. It’s amazing, we don’t tell each other too much but my wife and kids were really proud and my father was really proud that the club showed that loyalty to me.
‘It’s an honour to be head coach of this great group that we have but it has been an honour for me all along. I wouldn’t be the most outspoken in the media over the last five or six years. I believed it wasn’t my role as an assistant to be too vocal but it has been a huge honour to be part of this group. It has been one of the most successful periods of any club’s history in this league. For me to play any part of that is something I’m very proud of but this is just another milestone of what has been a great six years so far at the club.’
Perth, who played for Dundalk for a season under Gill in 2007, said he always wanted to be a manager but believes coaching players is more important. ‘I always wanted to be a manager since I was fairly young. The game has changed now. It’s not about managing a team, it’s about how teams are coached now. When you look at the top of the game from Pep Guardiola, all the way down to our level it’s about how a team is coached.
‘There’s a certain amount of management needed as well but the difference with us and say Man City is that they have four or five people who manage contracts and different things but that’s where John gives us that real managerial experience. He’ll give myself and Ruaidhrí a hand in that side of the game. We’re both very experienced coaches but probably very inexperienced at managing those finer details so I think it’s a good blend that we put together.’
While the process of appointing the trio was somewhat drawn out from a supporter’s perspective, Perth said he never had any fears that the appointment would get over the line despite reports that his lack of a Pro Licence could be a blocker.
‘I don’t think there was ever any real fear of that,’ he said. ‘For me, I just got on with the job in hand. Back in March I went full-time with the club so I’m someone who would work 10 or 12 hours a day no matter what the case may be so all I had to do was keep working hard until we put the management team in place. ‘In the middle of that madness people forget that we re-signed Robbie Benson and Dane Massey. I’d like to think I played a part in that. They showed real loyalty to the club and myself so I hadn’t any real fear in that sense.’
While Kenny’s departure is an obvious loss for Dundalk, Perth feels the structures are in place on and off the field for him to continue the success that the future national team manager brought to the club in their six years working together.
‘We have used the word continuity a lot and there’s a reason for that,’ said the Dubliner.
‘As a group we really respect the last manager that was here. A lot of people owe a lot to him. He gave me a chance, not just six years ago but a long time ago in football, and he’s always someone that I worked very closely with but I’ve partially worn those shoes as well in as much that he has been the leadership and the figurehead of the club but we’ve such a small number of staff in the club so for six years it was just me and him taking training sessions so I was right in the middle of it.
‘There’s a real sense of motivation now. People will question with Stephen gone what will happen the club now and will they struggle but the players are leading the motivation for that not to happen. People are probably questioning will the players struggle but they’re saying it wasn’t just about Stephen Kenny, there’s a whole team that made us great for the last six years and I think that’s true. I think it’s something that has probably been missed a little bit – the quality of player that we have and the quality of the backroom staff that we’ve had over the six years.
‘It would mean a hell of a lot just to retain our title and be back in the Champions League the following year and that’s our target. Anything other than that is going to feel like a disappointment.
‘Personally there will probably be a bit more motivation but I felt that last year, winning the league back after losing it to Cork. Doing that and rebuilding the team as part of the management here meant more to be probably than the other ones. The next one always means the most and that’s what motivates top sportspeople I think.’
There’s no question Perth is a top man and coach. 2019 is a year where he can blossom even more.