Keith O'Dwyer interview
LEO GRAY talks to Sligo Rovers' Club Promoter, Keith O'Dwyer, who leaves his role this month after five extraordinary years.
HE WAS hooked from the day former Sligo/Leitrim TD, Ted Nealon, brought him to his first game at the Showgrounds in 1989.
He was 11-years-old and dreamed of one day playing for Sligo Rovers.
By his own admission, he wasn't ever going to be good enough to realise that particular ambition but that didn't deter him from playing a hugely influential role in the spectacular progress of his home town soccer club.
At the end of this month, Keith O'Dwyer's five year term as Club Promotion Officer with Sligo Rovers will come to an end.
He'll return to the 'real world' to resume his career with Sligo County Council, content in the knowledge that he made a substantial contribution to the most exciting period in Rovers' history.
He will leave behind a club sitting proudly at the top of domestic socccer, having been crowned Airtricity League Champions for the first time since 1977, and a roll of honour during his term which includes one League Cup, two FAI Cups, regular participation in the All-Ireland Setanta Cup and European football, and a sound financial model which should ensure a prolonged period of stability over the coming years.
He can't take credit for all of that, of course, but there's no doubt that the phenominal work behind the scenes, of which 34 year oldO'Dwyer was the main architect and driving force, paved the way for the remarkable run of success on the field of play.
And, as a direct result of his specific role as Promotion Officer, Sligo Rovers is now one of the leading sports brands in the region, if not nationwide, a development which has not only generated huge goodwill, sponsorship and commercial opportunites for the Bit O'Red but has also had a positive spin-off for the wider community and Sligo generally.
It's a far cry from his early association with the club.
He was only 22-years-old when he was appointed Commercial Manager in 1999. The club was plummeting towards the relegation trap door, there were serious financial issues, and Sligo Rovers was a hard sell.
"I was wet behind the ears", he reflects. "I wasn't really ready for the job and the timing was terrible. I lasted nine months and it wasn't a very nice experience. But it was an eye-opener and I learned hard lessons which were to stand to me in later years"
His father, John, a proud Tipperary man with a strong hurling background, caught the soccer bug and joined Rovers management committee. At one stage, the entire family was involved in the struggle to keep the show on the road. Keith was programme editior, his father was on the management committee, his mother, Teresea, worked in the hospitality room, and his three brothers, Barry, Shane and Gavin, were on the playing staff.
It seemed a natural progression for Keith to apply for the role as Club Promotion Officer when Rovers, in conjunction with an FAI co-funded scheme, advertised the position.
By then, he was already employed full-time by Sligo County Council and, given his somewhat difficult time as Commercial Manager years earlier, there were those who doubted his sanity.
"A lot of people told me I was mad to leave the County Council and go back working for Rovers but I felt it was something I had to do", he explains.
He beat off stiff competition to land the job and began his new role in February 2008.
Paul Cook wasn't too long into his stint as manager and there was a freshness about the club - a feeling that they could finally turn the corner and establish some stability and credibility.
But, as always seemed to be the case with Rovers down through the years, they were burdened with crippling cash problems.
"At one stage, we needed to raise €130,000 within a few weeks to stop the club from going under", O'Dwyer recalls.
"Those were worrying times - people were worried about their jobs, eight players had to be let go and the very future of the club was under threat.
"The Chairman at the time, Michael Toolan, rallied the troops, Vincent Nally came on board and did a magnificent job in helping to turn things around, and myself, Paul Cook, Dermot Brannigan and Michael McTiernan organised a challenge game with the Liverpool Legends which brought in €30,000. The public at large also played their part.
"We managed to keep the gates open and that was definitely a turning point in the club's history"
With a financial crisis averted, O'Dwyer was able to concentrate on his own remit, promoting the club and establishing the Sligo Rovers brand.
He threw himself into the task with unbridled passion and enthusiasm.
"I had a very clear objective and that was to reengage Sligo Rovers with the local community", he explains.
"We went into schools at National and Secondary level; got involved in initiatives such as Show Racisim the Red Card, boosted the Super Reds Club and built up contacts with youth and junior soccer, not just in Sligo but throughout the region. We also launched coaching camps at affordable prices and started the Astro Turf League which has been an important revenue stream. Generally, we just got the Sligo Rovers brand out there. They were small steps to begin with but they all helped to establish Rovers as the flagship sporting organisation in the county"
During his term in office, Rovers also established a partnership with the AWARE charity, raising about €5,000 in recent years.
The success of the team under Paul Cook and more recently, Ian Baraclough has enhanced the club's profile but O'Dwyer believes there's still much to be done.
"There's no reason why Rovers can't become the top soccer academy in the West, just as Connacht Rugby has established itself in its own sphere", he says.
"The platform has been put in place to achieve that objective but we can't rest on our laurels.
"With the calibre of people involved on and off the pitch, I would be very optimistic about the club's future"
He admits he will desperately miss the day to day involvement with the club when he leaves his role but is looking forward to spending more time with his fiance, Caroline, and the couple's one-year-old child, Claudia.
"I would hope to stay involved in some way or other, but obviously not to the same extent as the last five years", he says.
"It will be tough leaving my role behind but maybe it's a good time to go on the back of some great years with the club."