Light at end of the dark tunnel
EXPECTATIONS were pretty low among Dundalk fans before a ball was kicked in 2012 - but even the most pessimistic followers hadn't seen a relegation playoff coming.
The fact that the Lilywhites came through that test against Waterford was one of the few highlights of a season that didn't promise much and delivered even less.
Incoming manager Sean McCaffrey had over taken over at Christmas time and proceeded to assemble a squad pretty much from scratch, with a scattering of experienced players joined by up and coming players aged around 20 such as Shane O'Neill, Michael Rafter, Chris Shields, Derek Foran, John Mountney and Robert Waters.
With Mark Griffin, Nathan Murphy, Stephen McDonnell, Eoghan Osborne and keeper Peter Cherrie retained from the previous season, the squad at the Monaghan native's fingertips should have been capable of finishing well above the likes of Bray, UCD and Monaghan.
Results in pre-season offered some encouragement as McCaffrey's squad won four friendlies out of five. Unfortunately the only goal they conceded was in the annual Jim Malone Cup match against Drogheda United which ended in defeat.
The league campaign kicked off with a dour goal-less draw at Monaghan, before St Pat's came to Oriel and played Dundalk off the park in a 2-0 win. Week three pitted the Lilywhites against Drogheda in Hunky Dorys Park and despite playing against 10 men for half of the second period and nine for the last 14 minutes McCaffrey's side still couldn't conjure a goal and the derby finished scoreless.
Strikes from Shields and O'Neill helped Dundalk to their first win against UCD, a result that lifted them to seventh place, but they would never hit those dizzy heights again and would have to wait seven months for their own other league victory on home soil.
March ended with a 3-0 reverse at Sligo and April began with a 00 draw against Shelbourne, with most of the plaudits going to 16year-old right-back Ben McLaughlin who had by this stage broken into the team.
But it was men against boys at Tallaght Stadium as the Lilywhites failed to score for the sixth time in seven games suffered a six-goal mauling, with Gary Twigg wreaking havoc for the Hoops. The last thing Dundalk needed was 'crisis' headlines, but it was at this point that CEO Gerry Matthews revealed that steps were being taken urgently to avoid financial meltdown, after divisions had emerged between the board and Trust members about the way the club should be run.
Sometimes teams rally in the face of adversity, but the following week's 2-1 victory at The Brandywell was still as unexpected as it was welcome. Michael Rafter and Shane O'Neill scored the goals, although there was a last-minute scare when ref Damien Hancock awarded Derry a penalty but changed his mind after consulting with an assistant.
The Lilywhites reverted to type the following week, losing at home to fellow strugglers Bohs, and after going down 3-2 in Cork they were second bottom of the table and had let go coaches John Whyte and Dermot O'Neill to help balance the books.
Bray and Monaghan were next to take full points against McCaffrey's team, before Mark Griffin - back after eight months sidelined with a groin injury - reminded us of his ability with two stunning free kicks to sink St Pat's 2-1 at Richmond. The other main talking point of that game was Rafter's dismissal at half-time following an altercation with teammate Robert Waters in the tunnel.
A sole John Mountney strike to account for non-league St Pat's CY in the FAI Cup was hardly cause for optimism, though, and McCaffrey seemed to be feeling the heat when going on the attack about the quality of refereeing following the 2-1 home defeat by Drogheda. That thrilling derby could easily have been three points for Dundalk, only for the brilliance of Drogs keeper Gabriel Sava as Griffin continued his rich vein of form.
The collapse of Monaghan United actually resulted in Dundalk leapfrogging UCD as results against Mons were expunged and there was no longer the threat of automatic relegation, but that didn't stop Derek Foran calling in this newspaper for his playing colleagues to 'wake up to reality' about the team's perilous plight.
'It may be sad saying it so early in the season, but every game is like a cup final for now,' he concluded.
When the league resumed after the break for Euro 2012 a Nathan Murphy goal secured an important draw at UCD, but Drogheda inflicted a penalty shootout defeat in the EA Sports Cup and June ended with a narrow defeat at home to Sligo after an uncharacteristic howler by keeper Peter Cherrie.
The loss came against a backdrop of the players being a week behind with their wages, and Gareth Coughlan became the latest victim of Gerry Matthews' cost-cutting measures as the CEO put the club up for sale in the hope of attracting new investors.
Dundalk still lay two points above rock-bottom UCD after going down 4-0 at Shelbourne, but the writing was on the wall for the beleaguered McCaffrey and he was dismissed six days later, at least partly as a cost-cutting measure, while Dan Cunningham and Ger Hanley left the club by mutual consent.
McCaffrey's assistant Darius Kierans took over in a caretaker capacity and steered the team to a 1-1 draw against Shamrock Rovers, with the players given a standing ovation at the end. It was too much for the Fyffes and Lily the Panda mascots who got into a scuffle at half-time, delayed the restart and had to be ushered off the field by the referee!
Off the field, the Dundalk FC Community Trust unveiled its takeover plans, using the image of a rocket launcher to publicise the meeting with supporters and revealing that they had already made significant donations to keep the club afloat on a shortterm basis.
Defender Paul Whelan replaced striker Shane O'Neill in the squad and two additional players came in on amateur terms as Kierans shuffled his pack within the ever-tightening constraints of the budget, and skipper Chris Shields popped up with a late equaliser to secure another welcome point against Derry on a day when keeper Cherrie made his 100th appearance for the club.
A narrow defeat at Bohemians was followed by consecutive draws against Cork City and Bray as the Lilywhites kept their noses in front of UCD, and a near 4,000 attendance for a friendly against a Chelsea XI eased the club's desperate financial plight.
At the same time, Ben McLaughlin was leaving with the club's best wishes after earning a dream move to the English Premiership with Everton, but his departure was another blow in terms of Kierans' playing resources.
He did enjoy his first victory as manager in the unlikely surroundings of a rain-sodden Gannon Park as Malahide were hammered 4-0 in the FAI Cup, and Mark Griffin's strike then saw off Bohemians to set up an unlikely semi-final at home to St Patrick's.
League results weren't going Dundalk's way, however, and a disastrous run of seven straight Premier Division defeats - including the club's worst defeat in any competition in 43 years at Shamrock Rovers (7-0) - left them nine points adrift at the bottom with three games left and unable to avoid the relegation play-offs.
A draw with Bohs and then a cherished victory against Bray in their two remaining home matches - with recent signing Barry Conlon scoring the winner - at least lifted spirits ahead of the two-leg showdown with Water-
ford. The home leg came first and it took an equaliser from Stephen McDonnell to rescue a 2-2 draw for Dundalk who played for an hour with 10 men following the dismissal of Stephen Maher.
Waterford looked to have the edge for the deciding game at the RSC three nights later, but the Lilywhites had other ideas and two goals from Rafter against one of his former clubs saw their Premier status preserved on a 4-2 aggregate score.
It wasn't enough to spare Darius Kierans his job, but when the club's very existence was in doubt just a couple of months earlier, survival in the top flight was the best Dundalk could have hoped for.