Dundalk must be mindful of history's lessons
Shels showed European odysseys can turn out to be a poisoned chalice
As Ollie Byrne lay dying in Our Lady's Hospice in Harold's Cross, he had only one question for me: "Sean, do you think that people will understand that everything I did, I did it for Shelbourne?" It wasn't a 64,000-dollar question, but it obviously meant a lot to Ollie, and I was delighted to reassure him that such was indeed the case.
Ollie Byrne was a Reds man through and through, he worked 24/7 to improve Shels' fortunes and, if he took the occasional short-cut, it was always for the good of the club, never for himself. In fact, he lived a rather frugal existence.
Ollie's experience with Shelbourne in the Champions League in 2004 comes to mind now that Dundalk are on the cusp of great things in the same competition. What lessons can the Lilywhites learn from Shelbourne's rise and fall? How can they avoid the same rapid decline?
Colm Murphy, secretary of Shelbourne then and now, recalls another Ollie Byrne anecdote to illustrate a point: "On the plane to the game against Deportivo, Ollie was talking to Finbarr Flood about the money we'd get if we qualified for the Champions League group stages. 'We'd get €17 million,' he said, and Finbarr said: 'That's unbelievable', to which Ollie replied: 'It is, but we'll need €22 million.'
"It was a combination of three things: hosting games in Lansdowne Road; the recruitment of more expensive players, and the exponential increase in your costs in line with your revenue. You mustn't lose sight of dominating in Ireland rather than the lower tier in Europe. You need to know your core business, and your core business is the League."
Murphy points out that Shelbourne, with their European success, were set to dominate the League for a number of years, instead they ended up relegated to the First Division. "Deportivo was the high point for the club, but ultimately it sowed the seeds of the club's destruction, and it's proving a long road back. However, I don't think that will happen to Dundalk."
Murphy reckons that Dundalk's is a better story than Shelbourne's "because Ollie Byrne had bought the best players, whereas Dundalk have not done that, and a huge amount of credit is due to Stephen Kenny for bringing a squad of what was regarded as journeymen to their present heights".
However, his praise comes with a warning: "Like us, Shamrock Rovers were set to dominate the League when they qualified for the Europa League group stages but they didn't, and now it's Dundalk's turn, and they lose two on the trot. Another loss and they could throw the League away. The first thing they have to do is focus on the domestic league. When the big European games come around they are a distraction for supporters, but they can't be for the players. It's easy to prioritise Europe, but to be there again you need to win the League. Kenny's problem is how to build his players up from going out of Europe to win the League."
Money - and how it is spent - is the biggest lesson that needs to be learned, according to Murphy. "When you have no money, it is easy to say 'No', but when you have money how you control your spending is key. You need to spend wisely, but you need one-and-a-half if not two teams to compete on both fronts."
With Ollie Byrne at the helm, acting wisely was a problem for Shelbourne. To illustrate the point, Murphy recalls another anecdote: "Ollie was on the job 24/7 and decisions often had to be made quickly. If he knew Finbarr Flood, the chairman, would agree with his decision he'd phone him, and if he thought he wouldn't he'd do it anyway, and then tell him he didn't have time to phone him!"
Should the Board not have been stronger in dealing with Ollie's excesses? "Yes, we should have, but he was unmanageable - and we all loved him. We were unprepared for the success and unprepared for the increased cost base. They were great days, but would I do it differently? Completely."
The more a club progresses, the more demands are made on it from people all across the board, explained Murphy. "Players, and people who did things for the club for nothing and suddenly they thought they should be paid. Financial problems probably broke up the club, and they arose from expecting to run the club at the same cost as we were doing, but with a different cost base. We didn't have the revenue to pay for it."
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Improving their infrastructure is something which ranks high with Dundalk, but they have problems to surmount regarding ownership if they are to improve Oriel Park. Shelbourne never thought of investing in infrastructure, according to Murphy, "because Ollie believed we were getting out of Tolka Park, and somebody was going to build us a new stadium, while our big games would be played in Lansdowne Road. A developer had an option to buy the ground, dependent on Shelbourne getting planning permission to develop. Ollie managed to extract money for that option, and that was spent on the players. Ultimately it was understood that the cost of Tolka Park would be greater than the cost of a new stadium, because Ollie favoured working with the Council, be it Fingal or the City Council, on that venture."
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny agrees with the late Ollie's line of thinking. Recently he remarked that the local authorities in Louth should be helping clubs like Dundalk to provide grounds capable of hosting European matches. The revenue which these games bring into the economy, and the spotlight they shine on the hosting towns, is immeasurable.
In an honour-laden career, the next three months represent the biggest test of Kenny's managerial ability. As the last two games have shown, producing results in the League will be as hard-fought as anything he manages in Europe.
However, this late-season odyssey begins on Wednesday at the Aviva against Poland's champions, Legia Warsaw. If they can hold Legia scoreless, it would be a major plus, as Dundalk have shown they can score goals home or away at this level. History beckons for a Dundalk team without a single capped player. Should they upset favourites Legia, and advance to the Champions League group stages, that is something which may have to change - adding to Kenny's problems!
Sunday Indo Sport