The rise of Dundalk's unlikely lads - How Stephen Kenny has brought his men to the top
How Stephen Kenny brought his group of strangers on a three-year journey from zero to heroes
Published 07/11/2015 | 02:30
The atmosphere on the cold winter night that kicked off Dundalk's preparations for the 2013 season was comparable with a first day in school.
Until that point, Dane Massey was an electrician who played football to supplement his income. He drove up the M1 with no idea what to expect from a dressing room that new manager Stephen Kenny had cobbled together from scratch.
"I didn't know anyone," he laughs. "Everyone was going around shaking hands and getting to know the names. I'd never played with Andy Boyle. I'd never even heard of Richie Towell. You had Keith Ward and Stephen O'Donnell, the jokers in the pack."
Boyle, who had joined from Shelbourne, has similar recollections.
"I remember Kurtis Byrne. I'd never met him before and he was saying a few things that you wouldn't be saying too much anywhere... never mind in that scenario. It was all a bit weird. If you'd said at that moment that it was the start of a team that would win back-to-back titles in the next three years, I'd have said you were mad."
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The locals would have agreed. Expectations after a fortunate escape from relegation were so low that a scoreless draw with Shamrock Rovers in Kenny's first competitive game in charge was greeted with jubilation.
They finished that season 16 points ahead of Rovers and only three behind champions St Patrick's Athletic, and determined to prove they were more than a one-season wonder.
When they reported for their second pre-season together, the foundations were in place to build towards tomorrow's FAI Cup final at the Aviva where they have a chance to complete a double and move into an elite bracket.
Sean Gannon, Daryl Horgan and Dave McMillan were the significant additions. They came into a team which was finding improvement from players with a modest CV.
Massey was already a case in point. He arrived at the border club as a 24-year-old left back that had spent the majority of his career fighting fires with Bray.
In his youth at Shamrock Rovers, he was introduced to the skilful game of Futsal, an indoor pursuit with a smaller team and a smaller ball that was developed in South America and is played professionally around the world.
His talent in the code allowed him to represent Ireland internationally; the highlight was scoring in a friendly win at the Nou Camp over a full-time Barcelona team that asked their visitors to keep the result private.
At Bray, by contrast, there was little room for fancy footwork. "I was an out and out defender in a blanket four defence clearing my lines," he recalls. Kenny spotted untapped potential.
"Bohs were in for me, but the minute Stephen rang I said I'd be interested in speaking," says Massey.
"I remembered playing against him and hearing him on the sideline encouraging his players to get it down and play. I never heard him giving out - a different breed to what I was used to. I went to meet him and everything I wanted to hear was coming out of his mouth; he wanted attacking full-backs getting up and down the line. I said: 'Where do I sign?'"
Massey is viewed in a different light now. So are Brian Gartland and Darren Meenan, who had been around the houses. Gannon blossomed from a St Pat's reserve into the league's top right-back.
Chris Shields and John Mountney, the two survivors from 2012, rehabilitated themselves. Backed by a stirring of dormant support in the town, the unlikely lads grew in confidence.
"It's sort of like a religion up here," grins Massey.
The secret to longevity was setting standards off the pitch, and Kenny handing full control of strength and conditioning to Graham Byrne. It wasn't a straightforward process. Dundalk were initially banned from a local gym as a legacy of bad behaviour from the 2012 squad. Newcomers had to buy into Byrne's methods. At Bray gym work for Massey consisted of one or two sessions a week and, by his own admission, he was clueless in that sphere.
"This was all new to me," he explains. "I had to be in it every day. Graham changed our diets, he introduced programmes that were intense. He worked on sprints and mechanics and it was all more scientific than anything I'd ever experienced. We became physically stronger and fitter. You see it now, we can press teams for 90 minutes and score a phenomenal amount of late goals.
"The science doesn't cost teams a huge amount of money. You just need a gym, the right idea and someone to guide players the right way. And then players have to take it upon themselves."
Towell is the poster boy. Boyle's former Crumlin team-mate came home from Scotland with question marks over his application. At Dundalk, he's been transformed into a powerhouse that is addicted to improving his physique and that work ethic which runs through the group means fresh faces simply have to catch up or check out.
"Ciaran Kilduff came in this year," continues Massey. "And he couldn't believe the intensity in our training. He was shattered at the start and saying to us 'How do you get up in the morning after that and go the gym and training afterwards?' And you can already see a physical difference in him."
Massey quickly realised that he had to fully commit to his football and, with the support of his employers in the Jervis St Centre, his trade was put on the backburner for now. The chance to be part of something special meant that he had to concentrate his energies. "I had to take the risk," he asserts.
Regardless of what happens against Cork tomorrow, this Dundalk group have a three-in-row tilt on the mind for next term and Europe remains the major box they want to tick after their near miss against BATE Borisov, although speculation over the future of star assets will inevitably linger. That is the price of assembling a group with a good age profile. They've tackled the belief that a sprinkling of experience who already have the stripes are essential for success.
"Winning the League Cup last September was a major thing," said Kenny this week.
"That was the first trophy for most of them. Then the league followed. They've embraced every challenge. Even last week against Bray, being told they needed four goals to break the record of most goals in a league season and they go and get them."
It's a focused dressing room, yet it's rarely an angry one.
"We're all jolly enough," shrugs Boyle, a 24-year-old centre-half who will wear the armband if injury doubt O'Donnell misses out. "The gaffer is a very calming influence. There's nobody that's too serious. Myself, Stevie, and Garts will be when we have to be. It helps when you all get along and that's genuinely the case. We're not just saying it.
"There's different kinds of leadership. Everyone knows what's expected when you come here; you're told from day one that this is how we train as a team and that's it.
"Sometimes you think if you win something you lose the hunger but in our case it's been the opposite.
After this game, we'll get our holidays and chill out and it's important everyone does that but in the last week in November we'll be into Graham to get the plan for the winter."
If there are gaps to fill, he trusts that Kenny will find the right solution. "He's not the type of manager to just bring players in and see what happens," Boyle says. "It's like his tactical awareness. He'll pick out things and you'll think 'I don't know if that'll work' and then you go out and it really does.
"There's always a plan. You can see he tries to bring a certain type of character into the group. If we keep it all together, we can win more stuff."
They've travelled a long road together, quite literally in the case of Massey, Byrne, Boyle and Towell, who discovered at the meet and greet that they lived near each other and agreed to share driving duties.
"You wouldn't want to know about some of the conversations," chuckles Massey. "Kurtis, the madman, just says whatever comes into his head."
There's no desire to change a winning formula. Familiarity has bred contentment.
The rise from zero to heroes is an extraordinary tale. Sunday is a chance to introduce themselves to a wider audience.