A year ago today, November 10th 2018, I rang John Gill to discuss the upcoming 10th anniversary of Dundalk’s First Division title win on November 15th 2008. He admitted at the time he thought he was finished with coaching. A year on he’s played a small but pivotal role in a hugely successful season for the club and is aiming for another winners’ medal at Oriel Park tomorrow night. Here’s that article a year on…
There have been more than a few sliding doors moments for Dundalk FC over the last few years.
What if Andy Connolly and Paul Brown hadn’t rescued the club when it looked to be on the brink of going out of business in the summer of 2012?
What if Michael Rafter hadn’t helped Darius Kierans’ side win the play-off that November against Waterford in the RSC?
And what if Stephen Kenny had never taken charge?
It’s easy to wonder how things would have transpired for the club, the town, its players and many of its supporters without any of those things happening. But perhaps the original ‘What If?’ moment came 10 years ago this Thursday in a game not even involving the club.
The date was November 15th 2008 and Dundalk FC had just won 6-1 away to Kildare County in their final game of what was their seventh season in the First Division. The victory at the Station Road might have been emphatic but the mood was sombre.
That’s because some 70km away in Tolka Park, Dermot Keely’s Shelbourne were winning 1-0 at home to Limerick 37 courtesy of a 63rd minute Anto Flood goal and were three minutes of stoppage time away from pipping Dundalk to the First Division title by a single point.
Then the ball broke to Colin Scanlan at the edge of the area and he squeezed a shot past Shels goalkeeper Dean Delany with a strike that arguably helped shape the modern day history of the league.
Suddenly, Dundalk were back in the big time.
Anyone who was in the Station Road that night will never forget the scenes. Grown men cried, supporters and players embraced and ‘championees, championees’ was sang long into the night.
Many had felt that when Dundalk lost 1-0 at home to Limerick 37 with two games remaining that their chance of promotion had gone but reflecting on the run-in with The Argus this week, manager John Gill revealed he never gave up hope.
“I knew we had hit a rocky patch towards the end. The Limerick game, in particular, we gave away a bad goal that night and we should have got something out of that game but I had a feeling that Shels would feel a little bit of pressure too and we just had to make sure, particularly on the last night, that we did our job.
“There was a big build up to it and a lot of doom and gloom. A lot of people on social media were giving me stick but I just said to the players go out and enjoy yourselves and make sure we keep up our end of the bargain.”
Despite a four goal salvo from Robbie Farrell and further strikes from David Cassidy and Derek Doyle to ensure a 6-1 win, it looked like Dundalk’s efforts wouldn’t be enough.
Indeed, Gill revealed it was only much later in the dressing room that the then Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern broke the news to him that his side were champions.
“The final whistle in our game went first and there was a real deflated feeling in the ground. A couple of individual people were giving me a bit of stick. I was only over a knee operation and I was walking off the pitch with two security men. Next of all I got picked up by them by the elbows and they started running. I said ‘I can’t run, I’ve a bad knee’ but I looked behind me and the cavalry were coming behind me….the supporters had run onto the pitch.”
What Gill didn’t know at the time was that those tuning into Gerry Kelly’s commentary on LMFM from Tolka Park had learnt of Scanlan’s goal. As supporters went wild, there was a further wait – for what seemed like an eternity – before referee Neil Doyle blew the full-time whistle in Drumcondra. Queue further scenes of ecstasy at the Station Road.
“I thought at the time that they were coming to try and nail me to the cross but the word had got out to them about the goal in Tolka whereas I didn’t know yet. Then when I got into the dressing room, the first man in was Dermot Ahern. I didn’t know what was going on but he came into the dressing room and he was the first man to inform me that we had won the league.
“I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never seen as many grown men crying, I’ve never seen as many people in shock. Now I have to say, I wasn’t in shock because I thought we fully deserved it – not only over the season but because of what happened, not so much the previous season because we deserved to be beaten in the play-offs by Finn Harps, but certainly the first season in 2006 when the FAI did what they did and the fiasco of making us play three games in five days.”
While the IAG’s decision to promote Waterford Utd rather than Dundalk FC two years previously despite Gill’s side beating the men from the RSC over two legs of a play-off still stings with the Donabate man, he feels that experience meant promotion in 2008 was all the sweeter.
“We went up to Finn Harps and the game was called off. We were on the bus on the way back and we had to turn back and stay the night. We then had to go to win that game knowing that we had to play on the Tuesday and the following Friday. Then to go and win those games and be told they were all in vain was tough to take.
“What was the point of playing them games and jeopardising players’ safety and getting players to take time off work? Then the back-handed way it was done!
“The likes of Maxi probably brought it to too much of an extreme but there was an awful lot of people hurt.
“I got a lot of stick from the FAI because I went public on my thoughts. I was in the press and I was on the radio giving my views. Then they got in touch with Des (Denning) to ask me to tone down my comments until after the IAG meeting and I was led to believe then that we were still going to go up.
“So to go up three years later after what we had been through, I think that created a great bond and I think we enjoyed it more. The only regret I have about that night is that I didn’t go back to Oriel that weekend. I wouldn’t go back because there was a lot going on behind the scenes and I had probably burned a few bridges but I should have been able to go back to enjoy the night and the weekend with the supporters. I didn’t get that chance to do that but that was mainly down to myself.
“I should have gone back and said ‘f* what’s gone on’ and ‘f* the people behind the scenes’ but I didn’t and that’s a regret. It was a unique night and a unique season. What a way to win a league! If you’re going to win a league, that’s the way to do it.”
What many supporters didn’t know at the time was that the board tried to replace Gill following a 3-1 defeat away to Wexford with five games to go.
“Not many people might know this but I was led to believe that my job was gone with five games to go,” he revealed.
“We had a wobble down in Wexford where we were beaten 3-1. We had two games in four or five days and I decided to rest a few of the senior players. I was trying to manage the group and I left them out, thinking that we’d have enough from the rest of the group to go and get a win.
“That was probably a bit of a mistake on my part and we got punished. A lot happened over that weekend and the game against Sporting Fingal, which we won, was almost a must-win game.
“It wasn’t nice what happened. I got a call from another League of Ireland manager after Wexford who was able to tell me that I was going to be called to a meeting on the Sunday.
“At the time Pat Scully had been paid off by Rovers and I was told that somebody on the board – and I won’t mention that somebody – had approached Pat Scully and basically asked him would he come and do the job if we were beaten by Sporting Fingal on the Monday.
“I went up for training on the Sunday and lo and behold I was called to a meeting before training. What went on in that meeting we’ll keep private but a few home truths were told. I was accused of losing the dressing room but I definitely don’t think I ever lost the dressing room so I refuted that claim and I responded by asking the question ‘who have I lost?’ but people weren’t prepared to name names.
“I then asked the question had anyone spoken to Pat Scully and a couple of people who will remain anonymous knew that I was onto them. I actually left the meeting, saying ‘I haven’t got time for this’ because I had to prepare for a game. The board then asked to meet the players before training but I said they could wait until after training. I then left after training with Gerry Scully and the board met the players.
“The players were asked had I lost the dressing room. Now how hurtful was that to me? Aidan Lynch, as captain, asked who has he lost and no one answered so the players got up and walked out of the meeting.
“I probably didn’t handle things well after that because I wouldn’t speak to the board but there was a little bit of a siege mentality for the last five games which worked for us. I got Enda McNulty in at my own expense, and he did a brilliant session with the players. It was just something different and a different voice and it helped lift a bit of the doom and gloom. We set ourselves a bit of a goal for the last four of five games. Enda actually said if you get 11 points from the last 15 you’ll win the league and that’s what we done.
“When we went up I was so pleased for all the supporters because it was three great years and three years of hard work. The first year, we were basically robbed of going up after winning a play-off. The second year we were beaten in a play-off but then the third year it was third time lucky.
“For Dundalk to be in that First Division for seven years was way, way, way too long.”
Gill’s admiration for Dundalk’s recent achievements are clear.
“As Stephen (Kenny) has found out now and more than surpassed it, Dundalk is a real football town. I’ve been lucky enough to work in a lot of football clubs but Dundalk to me always had that potential.
“I kind of scratched the surface of it but Stephen has brought it on to a new level. I take nothing but great satisfaction and pride in seeing Dundalk do so well. It’s brilliant for the club and brilliant for the supporters. I’ve got a great reception every time I’ve gone back there since with another club. I’ve got nothing but great support. People always make me feel welcome and they’ll always have a special place in my heart.
“Unfortunately we’ve lost a few special people since then like Brendan Conachy, Des Denning, Marty Shields. They were people who were on that journey who unfortunately aren’t with us anymore but it was great to give them a little bit of happiness and help move the bus in the right direction.
“To me Dundalk and Cork are the two biggest clubs in the country so it’s probably right that they are where they are at the moment. I know there are Dublin clubs who will claim they are but Dundalk is a real football town.
“I was up there yesterday on business and it’s great to see flags on every window. It was a little bit like that when I was there. Dundalk people are proud of their football club, particularly when they’re doing well. There were times when I started off where we weren’t doing well but they still came out and supported us.
“The crowds that we brought to away games in the First Division, other teams used to rub their hands because they knew when we played them that they were going to make a few bob from us. We were bringing 300 and 400 people to away games.
“They were incredible times and it’s incredible to see where the club has gone since then between the European run, winning two doubles and then to see in 2012 how near they were to going out of business. It’s incredible.
“The current side are certainly the best team that I’ve ever seen and I’ve been involved in the league as a coach or in a management capacity since 2001. You could argue, they’re probably the best that has ever been and Stephen is probably the best manager there has ever been.
“I actually spoke to him before he got the job because he rang me just to get the lay of the land. Other clubs go on about money being spent but Dundalk have earned the right to spend whatever money they want in whatever way they want. Stephen doesn’t go out and squander money. Anybody that he buys has delivered. I’ve seen other teams with similar resources who haven’t delivered so people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones. Worry about your own club and don’t be worrying about what other people have. You’ve got to try match what they have and surpass it but nobody has been able to do that.”
Does he ever wonder what would have happened had Colin Scanlan not scored?
“Of course,” he said.
“I probably knew I was a dead man walking that night. I knew in my heart I wasn’t going to be there the following year but it was important that I left it in a better place than what I found it and I did that.
“Football is a funny game, you only have to look at that night and that season. That particular night, probably two minutes of football changed the fortunes of Dundalk and I’d hate to think what might have happened had he not scored. If we hadn’t gone up that year it would have been a long, long road back.”
Unfortunately the dream promotion ended with Gill being let go, with Sean Connor coming in to replace him.
“No disrespect but when I saw who was appointed after me and the budget that he got, that was a little bit hard to take.
“When it ended, and I’m not too proud to say it, I shed a few tears and I would have been 44 at that time. The way I was treated was really poor. It took three to four weeks before I found out. I was left hanging on and I was asked to apply for my own job.
“I did shed a tear because it was a special three years and I felt like I had given my soul to the place and to the detriment of other parts of my life – my work, my family. It was literally Dundalk for three years but do I regret it? No.”
Gill believes the Dundalk story is now one of the great Irish sporting tales.
“You could write a movie script on it,” he said.
“I don’t think a lot of people outside Dundalk fully comprehend what has gone on there in the last 10 years. It’s incredible, absolutely incredible. It’s a football town which has rightly received its rewards in recent years.
“It has been brilliant since.”
Indeed, it has and all thanks to that famous night November 15th 2008.
“I believe that weekend was unique up there,” laughed Gill.
“You wouldn’t believe it but myself and Dermot Keely spent the Saturday together on the piss in Swords. He was devastated and I was obviously on cloud nine but it was great that we were able to share the time together.
“I still keep in touch the odd time with a lot of the lads. I said at the time after the game that in years to come we’ll remember this night and this season and to this day that happens. We always remember the great year that we had that year.
“The club have been incredible since but for me personally I think it was a pivotal moment because if we hadn’t got up that year I don’t know when it would have happened.
“It could have been another two or three years before we got back up because we had been through so much the previous two years. It was imperative we got up but we did and the rest is history.”
History indeed. Dundalk have achieved so much over the years that, looking back, a First Division title can often pale in significance. Anyone who was in the Station Road that night knows just how important it was though. To the side of 2008 10 years on: Thank you.