Sunday 21 July 2019

€500k plan should help champions Dundalk adapt to life after Stephen Kenny

Champions' new high-performance training centre underlines club's determination not to rest on their laurels this season

Robbie Benson with team-mates, from left, Stephen Folan, John Mountney and Patrick Hoban during the opening day of Dundalk pre season training at Oriel Park in Dundalk
Robbie Benson with team-mates, from left, Stephen Folan, John Mountney and Patrick Hoban during the opening day of Dundalk pre season training at Oriel Park in Dundalk
Aiming to stay on top: Georgie Kelly going through his paces at Dundalk’s new training centre. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The quip from Drogheda United assistant manager Kevin Doherty was delivered with perfect timing.

He had just watched Dundalk kick off pre-season by coasting to a 5-1 win over their First Division neighbours on a bitterly cold January evening.

"I'll be delivering the post on Tuesday," he said with a grin. "And they'll be off training in Spain."

Life without Stephen Kenny was always going to be strange for everyone associated with Dundalk but they were unlikely to receive too much sympathy from around the league.

Their players remain in a privileged position compared to the vast majority of the teams they will face this season, starting off with tonight's visit of Sligo Rovers.

While the bulk of the league have battled with the elements ahead of the big kick-off, Dundalk went to Spain for a warm-weather training camp and had friendly matches with opposition from Sweden and Austria. CSKA Moscow were in the vicinity doing their thing.

Stephen Folan going through his paces at Dundalk’s new training centre. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Folan going through his paces at Dundalk’s new training centre. Photo: Sportsfile

This is a legacy of the incredible success created by the departed manager. However, his sudden exit also demanded a quick response to prove that he didn't hold the keys to their future.

A meeting 24 hours after his departure laid out the club's next step, with continuity the key word that kept coming back up as their American owners Peak6 ruminated.

The immediate response was to promote assistant Vinny Perth to the role of head coach. He didn't have the pro licence required to manage at Premier Division level so the club brought back former boss John Gill as first-team coach with the FAI approving their arrangement and UEFA also sounded out to ensure there would be no problems when it came to European football.

Other clubs have noted this arrangement for future reference.

Michael Duffy going through his paces at Dundalk’s new training centre. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Duffy going through his paces at Dundalk’s new training centre. Photo: Sportsfile

There was a danger, however, that a cloud would hang over the first days of pre-season. This was addressed by plans that were already in place to revolutionise the behind-the-scenes facilities at Oriel Park.

Local reports have suggested that the cost of renovating the old Youth Development Centre (YDC), which sits behind the camera position, came to €300,000. In reality, it is closer to €500,000 when the spend on health and safety is factored in.

The squad came back from their break to new dressing-rooms with an individual 'pod' for each player , similar to the pictures they were used to seeing on the social media of players in the upper echelons of English football.

Kitman Noel Walsh has become a full-time employee to ensure that everything is in order from day to day.

The club gym had been upgraded with the walls packed with images of the greatest nights from Kenny's trophy-laden era.

A new video analysis room, likened to a small cinema, is nearing completion. So is a new kitchen area where the players will eat together before and after training; it will also service the functions that will be hosted in a large building that lay dormant for several years amid a dispute surrounding the lease.

"It's a much more professional set-up, the changing rooms are state-of-the-art," explains Dane Massey, who was signed ahead of Kenny's first campaign in 2013.

"In terms of professionalism, the club has stepped it up."

Buzz

"There was a bit of a buzz coming back," said Sean Hoare, speaking to the LOI Weekly podcast. "Oriel has come under a lot of criticism so it's nice to see a bit of an update to it."

Peak6 want the base to become a 'high-performance' centre which will give them a long-term edge.

Yet it doesn't address supporter concerns about the match-day experience which is particularly unpleasant for away fans and players; the old dressing-rooms are still used on match night which makes for a cramped preparation. If it rains, away fans are on an unprotected terrace.

Improvements have been explored but met with complications. Placing a roof over the away area would obscure the view from the main stand so a complete rethink is required. The hierarchy have made noises about refurbishments, yet there will be scepticism until there is evidence that proper work is going to begin.

It's clear that the priority is getting things right on the pitch, and they were able to use the new training area as means to impress recruits such as Jordan Flores (Wigan) and Sean Murray (Vejle Boldklub).

Perth was actually central to the design of some of the facilities; his old day job involved the installation of food courts and catering facilities.

"I knew what I was designing," he says. "It doesn't win you football matches but what it does do is create a proper environment where fellas can train to a high level.

"We've probably got one of the best facilities in the country now. The only sad part is that it's hidden away and nobody can see it."

Most of the squad were at the second day of Stephen O'Donnell's wedding when they learned the double-winning manager had been hired by the FAI.

The Dubliner later said he would have preferred for players not to have found out via social media. A brief statement from the club confirming the news did not do justice to his transformative work. Any wounds should heal in time.

At the crisis meeting, the tone was that this a chance for the rest of the group to prove their worth.

"Stephen did a fantastic job here and we scaled new heights all over Europe," says Massey, "We are all extremely proud of the job he's got.

"But now he's gone, we can show that it wasn't just (about) that man. Nothing changes. On the pitch, we're as strong as we have ever been."

That theory is about to be tested.

Irish Independent

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