“What is a club in any case?
“Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes.
“It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city.
“It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath I’m and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
– Sir Bobby Robson
A new era for Dundalk FC gets underway this Friday.
After six incredible seasons during which the league title has resided in Oriel Park on four occasions, there will be no Stephen Kenny in the home dug out for the visit of Sligo Rovers.
The man who guided the Lilywhites to a league and FAI Cup double just three months ago has taken up the Republic of Ireland U-21 managerial post with the promise of the senior job following down the line.
Kenny’s departure threatened to cause much disruption over the winter months, with Fyffes also briefly pulling the plug on their sponsorship of the club before coming back on board just after Christmas.
The panic of that period seems like a long time ago now. Instead with the new season on the horizon there’s a familiar feel about things on the Carrick Road still.
Vinny Perth and Ruaidhrí Higgins have both stepped up a position to become head coach and assistant head coach respectively and they will be joined in the dugout by former boss John Gill, who in his last competitive game in charge of the Lilywhites guided the club out of the doldrums of the First Division back in November 2008.
In many ways that famous night on the Station Road in Kildare paved the way for the success which followed in recent years.
Kenny might be gone but in creating history in Oriel Park he assembled one of the greatest squads the League of Ireland has ever seen. The major positive of the off-season is that the bulk of those remain.
The retirement of club captain Stephen O’Donnell was perhaps the biggest blow to stomach on the playing front but in goalkeeper Aaron McCarey, winger Daniel Kelly and midfielders Jordan Flores and Sean Murray, the new management team have made exciting additions to the squad which suggest Dundalk are still the team to beat.
The club’s rivals will be looking for any chink In Dundalk’s armour to have a dig in the coming weeks and will be hoping the initial period without ‘King Kenny’ is a rocky one.
Continuity has been the buzz word at Oriel over the winter months though, and if Dundalk can build up a head of steam they could be difficult to stop
There will be inevitable questions about how the club will cope without the man who brought eight major pieces of silverware to the town but that has only served to be a motivating factor within the dressing room.
Yes, Kenny was a big part of the success but so too was Perth. One thing both have in common is that neither scored a goal, kept a clean sheet or provided an assist in the last few years. That was down to the players who are, without question, the most professional group this club has ever seen. They won’t let standards drop.
Even before Kenny’s departure, amongst the first words out of Patrick McEleney’s mouth having scored the winning goal in last November’s FAI Cup final was bemoaning the fact that the League Cup wasn’t brought back to Dundalk last year as well. A double was great but missing out on a treble was still in the back of the mind.
This group are winners and they will continue to be.
Owners Peak6 have had their critics but in pumping money into the development of the YDC, they’ve given the squad even greater facilities to prepare for the challenges that lie ahead.
Kenny might be gone but what makes Dundalk great remains.
Oriel Park has its critics but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of marching up the Carrick Road on match night, hearing the roar of the crowd and even Mickey Duffy’s music.
A special group of players remain and the ambitions are just as lofty.
There might be a few bumps in the road but fans need to get behind the team when that happens just as they did in October 2016 when Friday’s opponents Sligo Rovers came to town and won 3-0. That night the team were applauded off to a rousing reception. Their response was to beat Cork City three days later to all but wrap up the league title.
As Alex Ferguson famously said after stepping down as Manchester Utd boss: “Your job now is to stand by the new manager.”
Vinny Perth has been on this journey every step of the way for the last six years. He has more than earned a crack at it.
There are encouraging signs, even at this early stage, that he is capable of filling the Kenny void. One small step in the right direction came after the recent friendly victory over IF Brommapojkarna in La Manga when he crossed the pitch at the full-time whistle before scaling the barrier into the stand to personally shake hands with the dozen or so supporters who had made the trip to Spain.
It was a notable gesture and one that you wouldn’t be surprised if his predecessor had done.
Later that night Perth joined the same fans for a drink, thanking them for their support and running through some of his visions for the club. Later a sing-song ensued with former club chairman Tony O’Kane providing the entertainment.
Before Perth departed back to the team hotel, he asked for ‘one more tune’.
Tony, guitar in hand, said a few words at this stage. He said he had been following Dundalk FC since being brought to Oriel Park by his dad back in 1952 but that the past six, which Vinny was a huge part of, had been without doubt the best.
He then broke into song with his version of the Kinks’ classic ‘Days’.
“Thank you for the days, Those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
“I’m thinking of the days, I won’t forget a single day, believe me.”
The Kenny era was indeed special. They were, as Tony sang, ‘Days I’ll remember all my life.”
That chapter in the club’s history is now closed but that doesn’t mean the success we’ve all enjoyed in recent years has to end.
It’s a new dawn. A fresh start.
The new season is back and with it comes plenty of enthusiasm and excitement. You can feel it amongst the players, the staff and the supporters.
We’ve had some great days together over the years. Here’s to plenty more in 2019 and beyond!