Dundalk's bonus territory brings welcome boost
When Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill described Dundalk captain Stephen O'Donnell as "inspirational" in the dressing room after Tuesday's historic win over BATE Borisov, he was referring to O'Donnell's performance on the pitch. However, O'Donnell's inspiration extended beyond the pitch as he was the prime negotiator for the handsome €40,000 bonus each of the players earned for their night's work.
As a euphoric Pat McEleney said in the aftermath: "A 40g bonus - that's my wedding sorted." And further bonuses await in the event of further progress.
For McEleney, Tuesday's display, when he came on as a replacement for the injured Ronan Finn after half an hour and transformed the match, was justification in spades for the gamble manager Stephen Kenny took on the Derry lad in January. While his ability was never in doubt, fitness problems dogged McEleney.
"I had offers from Dundalk and St Pat's," he recalled, "and I was over in England on a few trials at Peterborough and Brentford, which didn't work out. I wasn't in the right condition when I joined Dundalk but thanks to Graham Byrne [strength and conditioning coach] I have got myself fit, and now I'm aspiring to the group stages of the Champions' League."
Daryl Horgan, another star last Tuesday, was full of praise for O'Donnell: "His was one of the best, if not the best, performance ever by a League of Ireland player," he asserted.
O'Donnell acknowledged the compliment but made the point that: "I've played as good in other games, but everything looks different when you win. For me, every one of the players was unbelievable. They are so dedicated. In pre-season, this is what we were preparing for, not the league, and this is the reward for their dedication."
The captain also made another very pertinent point: "This is a very good team, because we have so many players who can run past the opposition, players like John Mountney, Daryl Horgan, Pat McEleney, Robbie Benson, Sean Gannon. Irish teams in the past didn't have this ability, especially in the closing stages of these games, yet there was no sign of cramp or distress from any of our players."
Fran Gavin, the director of the league, is naturally thrilled with recent developments. "Dundalk in the Aviva will be one of the biggest games for the Airtricity League in years," he said, "and I hope everybody, from all clubs, will go along and support them. It will be like an international match. UEFA have so many requirements - media, TV, hospitality, all that stuff - and goal-line technology that has to be fitted. It's a great challenge for everybody, the club, the players and the league itself. It's great that we have a stadium to give them.
"Tuesday was unbelievable. I was in Belgrade when Shamrock Rovers got through as well, and those two nights really stick out. They make you very proud of what the players do."
An extra eight European club games, starting with the play-off with Legia Warsaw in the Aviva on August 17, provides manager Kenny with the kind of challenge he revels in. However, keeping Dundalk's league ambitions afloat will require some squad strengthening and, with the transfer window over, that may mean dipping into the English market looking for out-of-contract players. Hopefully he can find another McEleney.
In his role as league chief, Gavin has been instrumental in re-arranging fixtures to accommodate all four clubs who were in European action, and Dundalk's progress means more work on that score.
For instance, Dundalk are due to play Crumlin United in the FAI Cup on the weekend between the two legs of the play-off v Legia Warsaw. How will that be resolved?
"I have been in touch with Stephen Kenny as regards fixtures," he responded. "I'm trying to work with the club and the other clubs, and we'll talk again on Monday. These are the sort of challenges that you have to adjust to. They need to play fixtures and that means an adjustment for the club, and we have to have the correct balance regarding fixtures and helping Dundalk while being considerate of the other clubs as well."
It's been a good few weeks for the league, but Gavin doesn't ignore the criticism received from Derry and St Pat's over the FAI's contribution to league clubs' strategic plans. In Derry's view, €5,000 was not enough.
"The announcement of €100,000 for the clubs to assist them in compiling their business plans was welcomed by the clubs after the meeting we had with them in Tipperary," said Gavin. "The Derry comments are disappointing, as it's only the first step to improve things. When the clubs have completed their business plans we'll go through them and help them achieve their goals. We will look at ways of sourcing the money necessary.
"Part of the business plan would be player development, coach development and facilities to match them. Then there's the structure of the club, the business side of it, and finally the community side: how they are embedding themselves in the community. At the end we should have 20 credible plans and there should be funding available."
But the FAI was particularly disappointed with the comments from St Pat's, with Gavin saying they were "quite extraordinary given that the club's representative was one of the architects in agreeing the funding initiative in the first place".
He added: "This is extremely confusing and is quite frustrating that St Patrick's Athletic have decided that parts of this process, which their representative agreed to, is now not for them. Many leading clubs have been in touch with me and have announced that they are extremely engaged in what we are all doing together."
Gavin remains proud of the work the league has been doing lately. "We have been working with Dundalk and Cork City around these matches, of course, but also with Bohemians on Dalymount, Wexford Youths on Ferrycarrig, Shamrock Rovers and their academy, and the Glanmire Centre of Excellence for Cork. There's a huge amount of good work being done with the clubs."
For the moment, though, the spotlight shines on Dundalk, as they bid to scale a mountain that was deemed unreachable a short time ago.
Sunday Indo Sport