Daniel McDonnell: Dundalk's rise from Hell to Heaven is one of our great sporting stories
Dundalk's extraordinary rise out of the depths of despair to the brink of Champions League qualification is one of our great sporting stories
Published 06/08/2016 | 02:30
Around Dundalk, Jim Murphy is known as the authority on the football club's history. Earlier this summer, the 80-year-old packed his bags in the hope of witnessing a glorious new chapter.
Murphy has penned two books on his passion, and can list off the great European nights that were regular occasions in the late 1960s, late 1970s and early '80s.
They were different times. With a busy job in the PJ Carroll's cigarette factory and the responsibility of raising a family of eight children with his wife Aine, who sadly passed away last year, travelling to matches with clubs like Liverpool, Celtic, PSV Eindhoven and Spurs was not a realistic option.
But when the draw was made for this year's Champions League second round qualifier, Murphy decided that he would attend his first ever European away game. He was due to travel to Iceland with his son Ruairi until unforeseen circumstances forced Ruairi to pull out.
The octogenarian considered his options and made a quick decision. "To hell with it, I'm going anyway," he laughs.
In Reykjavik, Murphy held court on the eve of the match by announcing that, in his view, progression past FH and the doors it opened would represent the greatest night in the club's existence. His wish was granted.
And then last Tuesday happened.
The greatest night has turned into the greatest month and there's more to come. His sons were on the phone after yesterday's Champions League play-off draw set a date with Legia Warsaw.
"The circus goes on," he laughs again. "To be continued..."
When most of the football world was concentrated on the Euro 2016 final, Dundalk were three days away from starting their European adventure at home to FH with Oriel Park's dated facilities scraping past the first hurdle criteria.
No Irish TV station was willing to come forward and foot the bill for the logistics of screening it.
Dundalk explored the possibility of live streaming and, in the course of doing so, officials learned of the existence of a strong wi-fi connection within range of the TV gantry that was installed by a previous regime.
Enquires revealed that the only person with the password worked in a local pet shop. A call was put in. The vain search for exposure really did take them to strange places.
Less than four weeks later, the same staff members are immersed in planning for a multi-million euro Champions League tie at the Aviva Stadium and group stage football that will lead to their games being available around the continent and beyond regardless of the outcome. UEFA demand 14 camera positions at each encounter. A different animal indeed.
Their rise is an extraordinary story.
Long-serving followers have no shortage of bad days to choose from but Murphy presents the consensus.
"We thought the First Division years (seven straight seasons from 2002 to 2008) were bad but nothing came close to what it was like during 2012," he explains, "That was appalling."
It was the nadir, a turbulent season where the worst side in the Premier Division only escaped relegation because Monaghan went out of business midway through the FAI's Polish trip.
Eleventh place gave them a two-legged play-off with Waterford in which they managed to prevail under the stewardship of caretaker boss Darius Kierans.
Making it that far took work. Die-hard fans had to launch a 'Save Our Club' appeal to raise funds. Bucket collections and supermarket bag packing were a staple of the mission. €500 here. €1,000 there. All needed.
Martin Connolly, who is now the general manager, has filled any number of positions since joining his local club as goalkeeping coach in 2008.
Connolly once served as understudy to Alan O'Neill for a European Cup clash with Honved and the head of the youth section was bumped up to be Kierans' assistant for the 2012 run-in. "There was nobody else," he quips.
Darkness was the backdrop. Kierans' first match was a 1-1 draw with Stephen Kenny's Shamrock Rovers. The game was barely over when the floodlights were turned off to save electricity.
"The players went out to do their cool-down and it was almost pitch black," he recalls.
Something had to change. It was his brother Andy and business partner, Belfast-born Paul Brown, that chose to step in. Dodging relegation was only one part of the escape.
"What people sometimes forget," says the Dundalk Democrat's Gavin McLaughlin. "Is that when the lads came in, they guaranteed the existing debts. If they hadn't agreed to do that, then nobody really knows what could have happened."
Martin offered his sibling some advice. "I told him he was mad," he says. "I saw how bad it was, I saw the stick you could get. This was doomsday stuff, and all the pressure it brought with it. Thankfully, he didn't listen."
Dundalk fans still sing about the meeting at Kenny's home in the Inishowen peninsula where he was offered a return to football two months after his painful sacking by Rovers.
'Big Paul Brown went to Donegal in his big Mercedes, he came back with a manager, his name was Stephen Kenny.'
Brown and Connolly run Fastfix, a company that supplies nuts, bolts, screws and other industrial products.
They don't do media although Connolly broke from habit for a few words with camera crew that visited Oriel for the draw, but they are well known to fans.
Brown was in the middle of travelling band that raucously celebrated the win in Iceland. Connolly still pays into home games and sits in his old seat.
"Our uncle Oliver started it for us by taking myself and Andy to games," says Martin. "I think one of Andy's first matches was Linfield in 1979 and all that came with that. I know my late mother and father would be very proud of his involvement now."
The duo do their talking behind the scenes and, in that first chat, they told Kenny they would not advertising the job because they wanted him.
A fresh image was required; few were interested in going up to watch a team that had tested the boundaries of goodwill in a period where leading squad members were better known for their socialising. Dundalk were barred from a local gym because of the misdemeanours of departed players.
Kenny needed to think about it. He rang his former Longford midfielder Vinny Perth, then manager of Malahide.
"He spoke to me knowing I'd been at the club before," says Perth. "But nobody knows the history of the League of Ireland better than Stephen. He knew the potential."
Kenny said yes, appointed Perth as number two and assembled a team from scratch.
Perth had scouted for Kenny before, yet it took him three games to realise the extent of the ambition.
"We were beaten at home by Sligo," he says. "We'd always have a meeting after every game and I was surprised by just how disappointed Stephen was.
"He was saying, 'If we'd won tonight, we would be clear at the top of the league'. I was thinking, 'Top of the league? Is he having a laugh?'
"But then I realised that this fella wasn't messing. He wanted us to go for the league straight away. My thought was that I needed to cop on and have the same belief as the manager. It didn't make sense to anyone from the outside but we ended up finishing second."
For the players accustomed to the fly-by-night culture of the league, where hopping from club to club is the norm, there was a gradual realisation that they were part of a better project.
Dubliner Brian Gartland was about to agree a deal with Shelbourne when he checked his voicemail and heard Kenny's voice.
The same money was on the table, but the Dundalk boss sold an idea to the centre-half.
"The travelling aspect was putting me off," Gartland confessed. "I'd spent my whole life travelling for football, but the gaffer told me to give it a couple of months. I liked what he said."
Saying yes changed the course of his life, and that goes beyond the two league medals, an FAI Cup and this year's excitement. Gartland has now bought a house in Dundalk and is engaged to Bronagh, a local girl.
"I'd never have believed that it all could have happened inside three years," he admits. "But the gaffer always set targets and records and stretched the boundaries.
"We went close in a league. Then we've got to win it. Then we've got to do it again. Next up, we've got to do it in Europe. Last year, we had the hard luck story. Not this year."
Gartland has endured his own tale of woe, breaking his wrist in round one with FH which meant he was working as a TV pundit with eir Sport for both legs of the BATE encounter.
The fact the show is guaranteed to go on means that he will get to be a part of it. "It was horrible on the bus going to Tallaght, realising I wouldn't be involved," he confesses.
Controlled emotions were impossible when it became clear that the upset was on. "I was up in the gantry with Damien Lynch and I was a bit teary-eyed," admits Gartland, who left his station to join the post-match celebrations.
"I've shed tears a few times over the past few days, a lot of tears. But I just keep laughing when I think about it too.
"We have a good chance of playing in the Champions League group stages. Imagine us going to Real Madrid, PSG, those places. But then why not? We believe we're good enough to go through. Why not keep this going?
"It really is surreal, though. I don't think it's fully sank in. Maybe it will be in years to come when we look back that we fully grasp it; when you look at the other teams in the round, the massive clubs with huge backing."
Connolly takes up the point. He was at a UEFA workshop on Wednesday where they were surprised to learn that he was one of only two full-time administrative employees.
Kenny referenced that in Tallaght too; a good portion of his staff and players have taken on other work to supplement their income.
The 'part-timers' label is inappropriate because their football commitment is full-time. They just have to try and fit other lives around it.
Prolific goalscorer Dave McMillan works 20 hours a week as an architect and was in the office on Wednesday morning.
Perth juggles his role with his job for a company that installs food courts and other catering equipment and was standing on a building site in Dame Street at 7am just hours after landing from the first leg in Belarus.
His wife recently came down at 3.30am in the morning to find him sitting at the table cutting clips for analysis. Every BATE corner kick this season was put into a package.
The attention to detail in their work is juxtaposed with the inadequacies of their Oriel Park base with a legal dispute over the lease with ex-owner Gerry Matthews delaying urgently required improvements. Sensitivity over the criticism of their pitch has gradually been replaced by the acceptance that it's holding them back.
A sudden injection of finances poses questions about the way forward.
"You have to pinch yourself," says Connolly, "Because in Iceland the feeling was relief.
"We've a lot to do now with all these games coming up but after that we have to sit down because nobody ever has a long-term plan in this league. It's always week to week."
After the blood and sweat, the tears of joy this week were natural.
But now all concerned must re-gather their composure and plot the route ahead.
The players who will be putting bonus money aside to keep them going through the unpaid Christmas would concur with that.
With a spread of counties represented in the dressing room, Kenny consistently asserts that this unbelievable script is an Irish success story. But it's Dundalk that owns the lucrative rights.