At this time of year it’s easy to look back on Dundalk FC’s history and remember the glory days.
In the last week alone, people have been reeling back the years to recall title wins, FAI victories, doubles and much more.
It’s easy to remember the good days in life but the bad equally shape you too and anyone who has been following Dundalk over the years knows there have been more than a few dark days along the way.
Perhaps the darkest of those days was the Trevor Anderson era from October 2002 to May 2004.
By any accounts the Belfast man’s reign was the worst the club has ever seen. A shortened 2002-03 season brought about the lowest points total in the club’s history – 23 from 22 matches – as the Lilywhites finished ninth in only their second ever First Division campaign.
The points per game average then actually managed to fall in his first full season in charge in 2003 when Dundalk finished third from bottom in 10th place with just six wins and 14 draws – enough for just 32 points from 33 matches.
They were the early years of a long seven year stint in the First Division, far removed from the heady heights of nowadays where title challenges are commonplace, silverware is an annual occurrence and European trips are the norm.
It’s hard to believe looking back that the Anderson era lasted just over 18 and a half months. These days it’s commonplace to bemoan managers being given too little time but, if anything, the former Man Utd player was given too long in the position.
One win in his first 15 outings after succeeding Martin Murray was bad and it never really recovered after that. Indeed, it took him 12 games to clinch his first league win at Oriel Park, some 224 days after taking charge of his first, a 2-1 defeat to neighbours Monaghan Utd.
Just 10 wins in the 55 league games he took charge of in total makes him the most forgettable of all managers who have stood in the home dugout at Oriel and yet his tenure at the club will never be forgotten.
Things finally came to a head on April 29th 2004 when, having taken the lead via Paul Marney, Dundalk suffered a late collapse to lose 3-1 at home to Galway Utd with Colin Fortune’s equaliser being followed up with late strikes from Dave Goldbey and John Russell that left the Lilywhites with just 10 points from the opening 21 on offer. There were reports of sectarian abuse from fans afterwards, which should never be condoned, but the message was clear: enough was enough.
Two days later on May 1st the late Des Denning, the chairman who had stood loyally behind Anderson to his own detriment, was gone with new chairman Tony O’Kane moving quickly to remove Anderson.
“It was my first job to do,” Tony recalled when looking back on that period 16 years ago this week.
“I remember sitting in the stand after we were beaten at home by Galway and I think it was the last straw for the fans.
“I was sitting close enough to Des in the stand and I remember one supporter who is a prominent businessman in town shouting at him ‘Get back to Cavan, you Cavan f**k, and get out of this club.'”
On the Saturday morning around 9am Denning phoned O’Kane – then the club’s FAI board rep – to say an emergency board meeting would be taking place at 10am in Oriel.
It was the beginning of the end for that regime.
Tony said: “When I went up all the directors were there and Des stood up and said ‘I’ve only one statement to make: I’m finished. I’m out.’ He got up and he walked out and Frank Mullen and Frank Keating left with him.”
It was then that long-serving secretary Elizabeth Duffy proposed O’Kane for the chairman’s role, which he reluctantly accepted as there was, in her words, “no one else.”
Tony’s first order of business was to suggest the removal of Anderson.
“I thought that was the number one priority because the fans weren’t happy with him and the results spoke for themselves,” he said.
“Then someone said he’s downstairs with a few of the players so I had to go down to him and I told him ‘Trevor, your era is finished. There has been a board meeting. Des has resigned and I’ve been elected chairman. Reluctantly I took it but the first thing I have to tell you is we’re serving you notice of the cessation of your contract.’
“But he just said I’m going nowhere, that he had a contract and that it was watertight until the end of the season.
“‘You’re not sacking me,’ he said, ‘otherwise I want full payment up front.’
“I went back up to the boardroom then and I said he won’t go, he wants his payment and I asked what are we going to do? Theresa (Loughman) calculated what he was due and it was about €8,000 or €9,000 so we decided to make him an offer.
“We couldn’t even afford to pay him at the time but we said we’d drip feed it to him over the next few months. I went back down to him and we settled on €3,000 or €4,000 for him to go with €2,000 then and the rest paid to him in a few months time.”
With that arranged the Anderson era was over but in many ways the problems were only just beginning. Huge overheads, which only spiralled in the months and years to follow, put the club’s very future in doubt with the remainder of the 2004 season virtually written off before the digging up of the grass surface in Oriel Park meant that 2005 was spent travelling to Gortakeegan in Monaghan for home matches. It summed up the mood of the club’s support at the time that the venue was nicknamed Cemetery Homes Park by Lilywhite supporters in a switch-up to the ground’s sponsors at the time, Century Homes.
Tony, who had been in business himself for many years running The Century Bar, said he couldn’t believe how bleak things were behind the scenes in those days.
“The wage bill was colossal that we were paying for a First Division team,” he said.
“There were some players getting around €850 and €900 a week. There were others then on €700 and €800 a week playing in Division One. It was only when I took over that I saw the wage bill and it was unbelievable the wages that they were paying.
“I never seen as low a point in the club. It was really bad and the money that we were paying the players was just absolutely off the wall.”
While Denning – who sadly passed away in September 2014 – saw his reputation suffer as a result of that era, O’Kane has no doubt he had the club’s best intentions at heart at all times.
“Trevor was very poor but Des had great faith in him and still had faith in him up until the end.
“We had a few rumblings in meetings over it but he used to say this is the man that I picked to bring us out of this division and he will. We stuck with it but from match to match it went from bad to worse.
“Des was a great clubman and I had great admiration for him. He never missed a match and travelled absolutely everywhere. He did his utmost for that club and I’d go as far to say as a consequence his business suffered because he had so much interest in Dundalk. It just didn’t work out though with Trevor and unfortunately Des’s legacy suffered slightly as a result.
“Des, to his own detriment, kept faith in him for too long. There was a bit of a swagger about him. He had a bit of a chip on his shoulder that he was at Man Utd and he had managed Linfield. It was that sort of attitude but it was a terrible era for the club, for Des and Anderson himself.”
Jim Gannon was appointed as Anderson’s successor just over six weeks later in mid-June having pipped another former Dundalk player, Tony Cousins, to the role.
O’Kane believes Gannon, who made 37 appearances for the club in the late 80s before departing for Sheffield United and subsequently Stockport County, was ahead of his time as a manager. Unfortunately his plans weren’t help by an ever worsening financial position.
“Jim had great plans. He was meticulous and he had a plan for the club but unfortunately all the plans were all costing massive money and we hadn’t got that kind of money and we were always going to struggle to get promoted playing home games in Monaghan.
“He saw three years work in it to get it back on its feet but Sean Connolly came in then with a few wild ideas at a time when we were struggling to pay wages. In between Jim left to go back to Stockport.
“At that time there were a couple of weeks when the players weren’t getting paid and the PFAI were starting to get involved with Fran Gavin because we were only paying them for one in three matches.”
The situation caused great personal strain for Tony at the time as local businesspeople sought payment they were owed and, for a time, he feared that the club he had been supporting since first being taken to Oriel Park by his dad in 1952 might be going to the wall.
“During that era I was living out in Ravensdale and there were fellas out knocking my door over the debt the club had. One guy called to the door saying he was owed €30,000. There were bus companies and electrical companies that we owed huge sums to. Three bus companies had been owed in excess of €40,000 each. As the bus companies pulled the plug, they started changing to a new bus company.
“Anyone who did any work for us, nobody was paid. That was in the era after Anderson,” said Tony.
“When I sat down and looked at the finances after Des departed, I think there was a bill of about €650,000. The Revenue were ready to close Oriel Park.”
Indeed, O’Kane believes were it not for the intervention of local businessman Gerry Matthews soon after, there would not be a Dundalk FC today.
“People say terrible things about Gerry Matthews but in fairness I have to stand by him for what he did for the club. He kept Dundalk Football Club afloat. He was the saviour at that time.
“He was doing a bit of work up there and we decided the only way out of the debt was to sell Hiney Park and Gerry came in and bought it.
“He gave a guarantee that he’d do nothing with it for the foreseeable future, that it would be there for the club.
“I left shortly after that but I remember him saying to me one day up in the boardroom that he had called in every single creditor that Dundalk Football Club had and he had paid every single one off them off. He had done deals with every single one of them.
“I remember him telling me distinctly that if a fella came up here next to wire a plug or paint a door that they would be paid immediately. Now I know when Andy (Connolly) and Paul (Brown) came in, they didn’t take to him at all but there might not have been a Dundalk FC today only for him.”
Looking back, there’s little good to take from that era for Tony.
“It was a turbulent time and a terrible era in Dundalk for football because it has always been a big football town.
“The years we languished in Division One, season after season, it was heartbreaking.”
The silver lining is that the club came through it, stayed afloat and there were thankfully better days ahead.
The Anderson era will never be forgotten in Dundalk. Hopefully those depths are never reached again.