Dundalk’s 1995 league winning side may not be remembered as one of the club’s best but 25 years on from that remarkable final day success, Tom McNulty still feels they were underrated slightly.
While no one expected Dermot Keely’s side to win the Premier Division in 1994/95, it was such a tight knit league that there were just 10 points between the eventual champions Dundalk and seventh placed Cork City.
In the end, the Lilywhites’ 2-0 win over Galway Utd – a game in which McNulty opened the scoring – coupled with Derry City and Shelbourne’s failure to win against Athlone Town and St Patrick’s Athletic respectively meant that the most unlikely league winners were crowned with just 59 points from 33 games having scored just 41.
To put that in context, Bohemians finished third last season on the same number of points but were a massive 26 points off Vinny Perth’s side which won the league.
While recent title battles have been two horse races, McNulty said it was not uncommon back then for tight affairs at the top.
“If you look at the leagues now, third and fourth placed teams are getting around them points. Leagues were a lot tighter then.
“A lot of people disagree with me but I felt the standard of the league has really deteriorated in recent years. You basically had two teams, Cork and Dundalk, pushing on and trying to improve but in a lot of the other games you were basically going up to Oriel Park to watch a team with 10 men behind the ball and a team trying to win a game whereas if you go back 20-30 years ago there would be two teams trying to win the game.
“The difference now is that teams in the middle of the table put 10 men behind the ball and you end up with one team trying to win and the other trying not to lose. Obviously now Cork have faded away and Rovers have taken their place but it’s hard to see third place getting any closer.”
That said, McNulty – who played 476 games over 14 seasons at Dundalk – said he never expected to be challenging for what would prove to be the 28th and final honour of his career that season.
“From my own personal point of view I thought if we could finish in the top four then we’d have done well but with 10 games to go we were still in the pack.
“I remember we had a meeting and the outcome of the meeting was we really need to start pushing on now because we felt we had a right good chance of winning it. We were playing with five at the back and we went 4-4-2 then for the last 10 games because we knew draws weren’t going to do it for us but we went on a run of wins and even when there was a wee hiccup we went straight back to winning.
“If you went through the team from Mick Byrne, John Cody, Anto Whelan, Martin Lawlor and Stephen Kelly, they were all good players and players who had all won stuff. I had a league medal behind me then and had won League Cups and President’s Cups so we had a lot of experience of winning and I think that stood to us coming towards the end of the season because we had lads who had been there and won.
“I’d say if you look back we were probably the oldest team ever to win a league. Our average age had to be 30-plus but we had such an experienced team that if we scored, that was it. Game over.
“We just didn’t allow teams to play. We didn’t allow them to get near the goals and our back four were all great headers of the ball. I could be wrong but I don’t think we conceded much from corners or free kicks. We were very solid.”
Even though Dundalk were in the mix on the final day, McNulty admits he went to Oriel Park that day fully expecting Derry City to win away to an Athlone Town side who were preparing for a relegation play-off against his old club Finn Harps.
“Personally, I would never have expected Derry not to win but if I remember correctly Athlone were winning early on in the game. Shels were getting beaten so at half-time it was up for grabs.
“We were still drawing and in the second half then I scored the first goal and then Mick Doohan scored pretty quickly after that so that was that game over.
“Shels were still getting beat and Derry were still chasing a goal when our game was over so it came over the tannoy then the commentary from Athlone. It was exciting for the fans listening to it and fortunately for us Athlone were able to hold on.
“For a lot of us that was probably our last chance of getting a trophy because we were all getting on in years. That meant it was really special because after that I was on the road down.
“I remembering thinking beforehand if we don’t get this then that’s probably it. If you look through the squad from Mick Byrne, Anto Whelan, John Cody, Martin Lawlor, we were all in our 30s so that was our last chance of really getting a trophy.”
It was another anniversary last Tuesday since McNulty scored another title deciding goal away to Cork City for what was his first league win.
He remembers both occasions fondly.
“1991 and 1995 just seem like yesterday. When someone says it is so many years ago you just say to yourself ‘My God, is it that long?’ It only seems like a couple of years ago.
“1991 was special. When we went down to Cork everybody thought we would win from the management team to the players.
“We had Peter Hanrahan playing up front and he was absolutely flying, I was playing well in midfield with Gino Lawless and our back four were superb. We conceded five goals in the opening game of the season and I think it was 13 for the rest of the season which was incredible. Alan O’Neill had 22 clean sheets which was amazing.
“The 91 team was the best I played in. You never had to worry about who you were playing because we had some of the best players in the league and on your day you knew you were a match for anybody.”
Special memories from a special player.