I was still making my way home from Dublin Airport after returning from Hungary on Thursday night when word filtered through that Vinny Perth was no longer Dundalk FC manager.
The previous night’s disappointing 3-0 defeat at the Szusza Ferenc Stadion in Újpest had proved the final straw for the club’s board and just 301 days after lifting the SSE Airtricity League trophy – in a period that included just eight league games – Perth was gone.
After 63 games in charge, during which time he had won a league title, an EA Sports Cup, a President’s Cup and the inaugural Unite the Union Champions Cup, not to mention the individual honours of PFAI Manager of the Year and SWAI Personality of the Year, the decision came as a shock to many.
It’s easy to see why. Despite recent struggles, Perth’s win ratio in the league was 70.5% – higher than that of his predecessor Stephen Kenny whose win ratio was 69.7%.
How did it get to this?
There are several facets to the story. Here I delve into the good, the bad and the ugly of Perth’s time at Dundalk FC.
Emotions can be high after a sacking. Some will feel it justified, others will think it was uncalled for. Whatever side of the fence you sit on, no one can ever take away from the amount of good that Vinny Perth did for Dundalk Football Club and the town as a whole.
Some of the heights reached by those in Oriel Park over the last few years would have been unthinkable for virtually any club in the league let alone one who almost went to the wall in the summer of 2012 before just about clinging on to its Premier Division status the following November.
The turning point and the start of one of arguably the greatest journeys in the club’s history would be sparked later that month when Stephen Kenny took charge as the club began preparing for the 2013 season.
For all the fanfare his arrival brought at the time, the appointment of Perth to his coaching staff went largely under the radar.
Perth had been coaching prior to that at Malahide Utd but had links with Dundalk having played at Oriel for one season under John Gill in 2007 and from his work with Martin Food Equipment on the Coes Road.
Kenny and Perth had also worked together in the past during Perth’s playing days at Longford Town and later at Derry City where Perth briefly filled the role as opposition analyst.
Despite Gerry Spain officially having the title of assistant in the early days of the Kenny era, it was always Vinny beside him in the dug out.
The success that followed was unprecedented. There were league titles in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018, FAI Cups in 2015 and 2018, EA Sports Cups in 2014 and 2017, not to mention that memorable 12 game run to the group stages of the Europa League and the brink of the Champions League in 2016.
Even the low points of that era weren’t particularly bad: runners-up in the league in 2013 and 2017, beaten finalists in the Setanta Cup final in 2014, two further FAI Cup finals in 2016 and 2017 and many more memorable European nights where a side from a small border town in Ireland went toe to toe with some of Europe’s finest and gave them a right old sweat.
As well as success on the field, that period brought in huge income off it, transforming the club from a small part-time operation to a professional outfit with some of the finest training facilities in the country.
It was fairytale stuff and Perth had played more than a bit-part role with an unbelievable work ethic in helping to prepare the side for the many big games they enjoyed over that period.
Then came the bombshell in November 2018 that Kenny was off to Abbotstown to take up the Republic of Ireland U-21 manager’s job and subsequently the senior role.
It was the right thing for Dundalk to turn to Perth at the time to step up into the manager’s job, initially aided by the appointment of John Gill as first team coach to get around the fact that he had yet to secure a Pro Licence.
Even though he had been at the club for six seasons up until that point, many Dundalk fans had never heard Perth speak prior to Kenny’s departure but he instantly impressed with his passion and drive.
Despite a rocky start, not helped by fractures sustained by Robbie Benson and Patrick McEleney in his opening game in charge, the fans stuck by Perth and he turned it around to deliver the club’s 14th league title, another EA Sports Cup, the President’s Cup and the inaugural Unite the Union Champions Cup. Indeed, he was a penalty shoot-out away in the FAI Cup final from doing what only the great Jim McLaughlin had managed before him of completing a domestic clean sweep of trophies.
While Perth tasted glory on the field, he became hugely appreciated off it by the club’s supporters. His passion was evident in everything he did and, despite living in Dublin, he threw himself into the community and made a real conscious effort to improve links between the club and the town it represented. His selflessness was evident during the recent Covid-19 lockdown where he took part in various fundraisers including auctioning his league winners’ medal for RehabCare.
While in the tentative stages, mostly unknown to supporters, he had been working quietly on improving the club’s underage structures.
He was the ultimate club ambassador and that element of his character will perhaps be missed more than any other as Dundalk enter a new era over the coming weeks and months.
He was also a great supporter of the league in general and while his recent reaction to John Sheridan’s comments about the League of Ireland being a ‘pub league’ were dismissed in many quarters as deflection tactics away from the side’s form, there was an element of sincerity to them as well.
Emotions are raw right now in the wake of his departure but Vinny Perth contributed so much to the club that will never be forgotten. It will be some comfort to him also that most fans are outraged at his dismissal.
It’s understandable to see why – he played a huge part in delivering some of the best days of their lives.
No one can ever take away the honours he has won and the story he contributed to. No one should also ever doubt his work ethic or his love for the club.
Success comes and goes but memories are forever and few in Dundalk will forget Vinny Perth’s contribution any time soon.
As much as sympathy lies with Perth on the whole right now, he made a number of mistakes which you might expect of a first time manager in a big job.
One of his main struggles was coming out of Stephen Kenny’s enormous shadow. While Perth’s appointment ahead of the 2019 campaign was broadly welcomed, he spoke in Baku prior to the Champions League tie with Qarabag last summer about the difficulty in stepping up from the role of assistant to manager.
Whereas previously Perth was the ‘big brother’ of the camp, he was now the father figure who had to crack the whip from time to time. By his own admission, he used to put his arm around players who were left out of the side by Kenny to assure them that he’d have picked them if in charge. This was no longer an option when he held the keys to the castle and as a result relationships with various players whom he was previously close to became frayed – not helped in recent months by some players being promised contracts which never transpired.
Some players craved the man management that Kenny used to provide but the new Ireland manager is unique at that and at times his successor rubbed players up the wrong way with his attempts to lift them and motivate them – leading to the opposite effect.
That can happen but the situation worsened as last season progressed to the point where Robbie Benson and, to a lesser extent Jamie McGrath, wanted out. While McGrath’s move to St Mirren was also down to a desire for a new challenge abroad, Benson’s departure to link up with Stephen O’Donnell was heavily motivated by the fact he no longer wanted to play under a man who he had spent the previous four seasons with.
Recruitment also left a lot to be desired on the whole, although admittedly most of this year’s additions haven’t had a chance to settle in fully as a result of the pandemic.
While wide players were targeted, the club never addressed the need to strengthen a midfield that never looked as strong without the likes of Richie Towell, Stephen O’Donnell, Ronan Finn and even the aforementioned Benson. A creative spark in midfield has been particularly absent this season and perhaps summed up by looking at those who have been creating for Patrick Hoban. Since his return to to the club ahead of the 2018 season, the striker has scored 59 goals for the club – a more than decent return. Yet up until he nodded in Sean Murray’s corner against Waterford recently, it was the long-departed and briefly present Krisztián Adorján who had supplied the most assists from him from the centre of midfield with two. While Michael Duffy has supplied most of his goals in that period, it sums up the service that he has had to rely on at times that bit-part players who have since left such as Dylan Connolly and Ronan Murray are joint second and third when it comes to assists for him.
At the start of the year Chris Shields was made club captain and, while it was Perth’s total right to appoint whoever he saw fit to wear the armband, his failure to inform Brian Gartland that he no longer held the honour until post lockdown grated with some members of the squad. It was only when Shields and Gartland both featured in the recent FAI Cup game at home to Waterford that many around the club knew that the centre half had been ousted from the captaincy role.
Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the world but it also helped fast track Perth’s demise.
The postponement of the Euro 2020 play-offs led to Kenny being promoted ahead of schedule into the senior Republic of Ireland manager’s position and, at that stage, Perth had hoped to feature as part of his backroom team.
When it emerged that Kenny wanted Perth’s assistant Ruaidhrí Higgins rather than the man who was his number two during his trophy-laden period at Oriel Park, it didn’t sit well.
To add salt into the wounds, Higgins’ departure to take up a scouting role with the national side robbed him of his closest confidante and a man who he rang several times a day – even during lockdown. Also from a players’ perspective, they lost their new ‘big brother’ and someone they considered one of their own having won a league title at the club as a player back in 2014.
Furrowing on alone, Perth opted for Alan Reynolds as his new assistant when the club’s owners preferred Mark Burton, who apparently had blown them away at the interview stage. Despite appointing Reynolds officially, the board wanted Burton brought in to help with coaching ahead of Europe but he was viewed as a threat despite his insistence this weekend that he was never interested in the top job.
The former Man City coach, despite reports to the contrary, was liked by the players but his involvement was curtailed to the point he never got to truly show what he could offer.
After growing frustrated about the lack of time he was being given with players, Burton packed things in and went back to England following the FAI Cup win over Waterford. That would not have went down well with the owners, who must have already been questioning why they were having to hire a freelance coach to improve the side when there were already four Pro Licence holders on their books.
While all this was going on, morale within the dressing room was plummeting – not helped by the tragic death of the hugely popular Harry Taaffe.
Again, much of this can be traced back to Covid-19. While Perth battled for his side to be allowed return to training early – as much to ensure PEAK6 continued to pay wages as anything else – several key members of the squad had expressed concerns over returning to Oriel Park at a time when the country was still on lockdown as a result of the pandemic.
This led to further tensions, with matters only worsening as the league prepared for its return at the end of July. Even before the 1-1 draw with St Patrick’s Athletic on what was the club’s first competitive game back after lockdown, players had complained that they felt unprepared. The result would bring pressure on that the side has yet to recover from.
By the time the Bohemians game came around a week later – a match Dundalk would lose 2-1 to slip eight points adrift of Shamrock Rovers – morale in the dressing room was on the floor. There was little talking, no real leadership and at times they played like strangers.
It would be a step too far to say players threw in the towel but their general attitude was having a huge knock-on effect on their performances. There was some criticism of the manager in the dressing room at this stage. They bemoaned a lack of preparation, expressing particular concerns over time spent on the actual pitch in training.
There have been mixed views in the dressing room on Perth’s dismissal but not everyone was sorry to see him go. While many have spoken to their former manager privately, as of Monday morning not a single player had thanked him or lamented his sacking publicly either by social media or in the form of an interview.
Perth, I’m sure, will admit he made mistakes along the way but what first time manager doesn’t?
Did any of his warrant a sacking? Ordinarily not even close, but this was no ordinary situation.
While many in the Dundalk dressing room have been great servants to the club, players will always look to put the blame on someone else and a manager already under pressure was an easy target.
Whether they were unprepared for games or not is a matter of opinion but a manager also cannot be held accountable for the basic defensive errors that led to three goals being shipped against Celje and Sligo Rovers this week.
Perth wasn’t perfect but the performance at The Showgrounds on Saturday showed, if there was any doubt, that the issues run deeper at the club. That, unfortunately, is the ugly side.
There are very few situations in football where you find a manager swapping a top job at one club for the number two role at another within the same league. That was what happened, however, when Alan Reynolds departed Waterford FC in July to replace Ruaidhrí Higgins’ as Vinny Perth’s assistant.
The appeal for the 46-year-old was obvious. He was leaving what looked at the time a basket case of a situation with question marks over Waterford owner Lee Power’s commitment to the club and whether they would even have a squad for the restart.
Thankfully from a League of Ireland perspective the Blues appear to be back on the right track but for Reynolds he stepped from one bad situation into another.
He is understood to have confided in close friends that he was shocked by the atmosphere at the club when he joined. Having toiled with this Dundalk side in various roles at Pat’s, Cork and Waterford in recent seasons, he had understandably admired from afar what he saw from the outside.
That was now a thing of the past as he came into a setup where not just those on the pitch but those off it as well were down. Indeed, one source went as far as to describe the mood around the club as “toxic” with long-serving and popular volunteers Colm Murphy and Simon Blackmore having taken a step back from the club of late.
While owners PEAK6 have done a huge amount of good for the club, they must shoulder the blame for a large portion of where the current mood is at.
Regular interference has led to several at Oriel Park feeling undermined with requests from chairman Bill Hulsizer often deemed unrealistic. The number and length of calls he would make on a daily basis, often late into the night due to time differences between here and America, also didn’t add to his popularity among staff.
Indeed, rightly or wrong, there is a sense in some quarters that he has been given Dundalk as a play thing to keep him happy and certainly given some of the recent goings-on that would be hard to dispute with the club being run like a Championship Manager game at times in recent weeks.
It’s a year ago this week since I was banned by Dundalk FC for an article criticising the club for its direction at that time. When I titled it ‘Be careful what you wish for’ little could I have imagined how poignant that would be 12 months on.
One of the major points highlighted at the time was the presence of consultant Andy Burton, with the former SkySports presenter looking to sign players, apparently without the manager’s consent and looking to have an input in team selection.
Twelve months on, Burton is long gone but the same kind of interference still exists – only worse.
Former chairman Mike Treacy, a self-confessed stats nerd, was calculated in a lot of his thinking – weighing up the pros and cons and risks and rewards of everything. He has been replaced by someone with a much more haphazard approach. A man who is more a dreamer than a realist. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory but it’s a massive sea change in strategy in just a few months.
While PEAK6 were wonderfully supportive to Perth in terms of broadening the search parameters for new players, the most high profile of which was Stefan Colovic, there has been a large American influx in recent times that was not so welcome.
Perth felt Joshua Gatt was neither wanted nor needed but he was given a deal by Hulsizer, who was endeared by the story he told about his life and career to ESPN at the start of the year. Most supporters would be unaware of other American imports that have came into the fold as well. Taner Dogan, who did feature in a number of pre-season games also arrived and was sent to Athlone on loan but continues to train at Oriel. Less prominent arrivals have included college players Dane Lind and German Giammattei and while not American, Nathan Oduwa’s younger brother will shortly link up with the club’s U-19s having also been offered a deal by the owners.
The influx of players, often not good enough to be in and around the squad, angered more established pros. This resentment has only grown as the months have gone on due to how often they have been back and forth to the chairman informing him of current goings on in the dressing room.
Trying to scout players for the future is one thing but the role of owners was definitely overstepped when they began seeking an input into team affairs. Indeed, it was even suggested that cameras be installed so that training could be monitored.
Perhaps one of the most mad cap recent suggestions was that the owners wanted the club to field the U-19s in the first league game back against St Patrick’s Athletic in order so that a glamour friendly away to Celtic could be fulfilled – something that would have required Dundalk to quarantine for two weeks. Thankfully, in the end, sense prevailed.
It is my understanding that the recent half-time changes in the 2-2 draw with Waterford FC were at least suggested Stateside, if not enforced. What appears clear is that Perth also felt at least some pressure to pick a side not of his choosing for the Champions League tie with Celje last week.
The fact he didn’t undoubtedly had at least a small part to play in the speed of his demise less than 24 hours after the side had touched back down in Dublin after their 3-0 defeat.
PEAK6 will no doubt deny any interference – and in these cases it is very much a case of he said, she said – but one move during Saturday’s defeat away to Sligo Rovers looked particularly suspicious.
One rumour I had heard and subsequently shared with Paul O’Hehir (Irish Daily Mirror) and Adrian Taaffe (LMFM) over dinner on our trip to Budapest was that it had been suggested to Perth that he play Michael Duffy – arguably the best winger in the league for the last couple of seasons – in a central midfield role in order to accommodate Nathan Oduwa on the left. While everyone has their opinion on team selection in football, it’s doubtful too many would have suggested such a tactic. Lo and behold in the second half in Sligo, that came to fruition.
More than a few recent tactics have had the look of inexperience about them as well. One thing that got this Dundalk side to the sort of heights which saw them take part in a play-off to reach the Champions League group stages four years ago on Sunday was an unflinching belief in their methods. How often did Stephen Kenny, even when fans were calling for it, abandon his principles and play two up top, for example?
The changes in Hungary, whether they were Perth’s decisions or those of others, actually unbalanced the side at a time when they looked to have the Slovenians on the ropes. Even if the coach completely ignored suggestions from elsewhere, the very fact they were being made was hardly ideal in terms of focusing on preparing a side for such a big game.
That said, while I don’t condone the sacking of Perth, I find it baffling it did not happen prior to Wednesday’s game. If the owners had lost faith in Perth why give him control for a match which had a €400,000 prize up for grabs?
He showed moral courage to do it his own way but he would ultimately pay for defying the board.
That leaves the question where to from here?
The defeat in Sligo showed that the issues at the club were about more than just a manager.
As already mentioned, there’s a poor atmosphere around Oriel Park at present and not just because there are no fans there.
That needs to change but turning around a mood can be one of the most difficult things to do.
The next appointment could be crucial in determining whether this period will be looked back upon as a blip or the start of a more serious decline. In that regard, the club’s strategy is somewhat baffling. It is understood they will seek a short-term appointment until the end of the season before pursuing a more long-term manager in the close season.
That’s all well and good if a target has been identified that is not available at present but that is not understood to be the case. Surely the logical thing to do would be to get a new man in now to weigh up the current squad and begin identifying targets for next season.
With only 10 players contracted for 2021 and 18 out of contract there is much to be decided upon and getting the right man in now is surely important in determining where the club goes from here.
Can the board be trusted to make the right appointment though? With no one on this side of the Atlantic having a say, there’s a good chance that many potential candidates mentioned in local circles are completely unknown to the owners.
Either way the board must now appoint someone and entrust them to do the job without interference. PEAK6 might be excellent businessmen and investors but it should be left to football people to oversee the football side of the club. Yes, there has to be accountability with any employee, but for better or worse they need to be allowed to do it their own way.
Whoever Perth’s replacement is, there is the sense that this is the end of a glorious era. Only time will tell if his sacking is the right one but the club has lost a good man, who will hopefully get a chance to prove himself again in the managerial sphere elsewhere.
His dismissal means that the Kenny/Perth era is no more and with several long-standing players out of contract, it could be a very different Dundalk FC next season. Even sponsors Fyffes are on the way out, albeit with a replacement already lined-up.
The past few months have been a mess for Dundalk on and off the field. Now the decisions in the days ahead will determine whether the club’s future is good, bad or ugly.
This article was written for The Argus newspaper dated August 25th 2020 before news broke about the impending appointment of Filippo Giovagnoli.