Desperate start to the season has put scrutiny on US owners
It says a lot about the trajectory of Dundalk’s season that the biggest win they have enjoyed to date was a negative set of Covid-19 tests off the back of an ill-judged team bonding exercise in Belfast.
Sporting director Jim Magilton, now serving as interim manager in his latest fire-fighting mission just five months into his four-year term at Oriel Park, was visibly relieved at the medical results, acknowledging that a Covid outbreak could have taken things down another level.
But there’s no respite at the moment for a club that has now consistently started making headlines for all of the wrong reasons.
A section of fans are planning a protest ahead of next Friday’s game with Shamrock Rovers, with social media posts suggesting that the target of their ire will be Florida-based chairman Bill Hulsizer, the father of Matt who is the billionare founder of majority owner Peak6. It’s difficult to estimate the level of interest in this event with some local voices preaching caution, fearing it could do greater harm than good.
But the very fact that it’s even been discussed at a club that has won five of the last seven Premier Division titles and qualified for the Europa League group stages twice shows how quickly the mood music can change in football. Ironically enough, it is concerns around the financial equation that arguably unites people on the various sides of the protest camps.
The publication of 2020 accounts has raised questions about decisions taken by the American ownership who took over a club that was in a strong financial position by League of Ireland standards. But it has also fuelled the view that their departure could send the border outfit back towards rock bottom. Dundalk now owe €1.7m to the group companies backing them.
There’s a significant Covid aspect to that equation; 2020 was a year like no other and the finances tell a tale. Peak6 did win praise for promising to honour the contracts of players and staff despite the absence of fans in stadiums and they put in €1.5m last year to balance the books.
Matt Hulsizer said in October that Dundalk’s wage bill was double that of any other club in the league at that juncture, which would put the outlay well north of €2m per annum.
However, the unlikely progression to the Europa League group stages under rookie boss Filippo Giovagnoli netted close to €3m in UEFA prize money, with the majority of the rewards paid up promptly, although there will be a delayed market share that comes their way later this year.
This allowed Dundalk to make a profit of €108,000 for 2020 (they lost €1.2m in 2019), but the devil is in the detail – to make such a lucrative breakthrough and only return a small profit highlights the spending during the year, including a commitment to lucrative European bonuses. A key line in the accounts is accruals which has shot up from €56,572 to €760,109.
It has to be stressed that there is nothing unusual about a sizeable chunk of European prize money going to the staff and players that did the business on the pitch. The 2016 group, led by Stephen Kenny, were richly rewarded. But the problem for Dundalk this time around is that individual contracts have been heavily incentivised, with group-stage bonuses separate to any collective arrangement. It’s understood that Giovagnoli collected a six-figure reward for his efforts with portions of the 2020 bonuses still being paid to employees in instalments across March and April of this year, just before the departure of the management team of Giovagnoli and Shane Keegan, which left Magilton in caretaker charge.
At the end of November, Dundalk had €3m in the bank but owed €3.4m to creditors (with the €1.7m to the ownership included in that amount). This is why their erratic displays in 2021 have become such a source of concern.
The failure to win the league last year means they miss out on the guaranteed €800k from starting off in the Champions League qualifiers. They will instead kick off in the new UEFA Europa Conference League with the organisers yet to confirm the finances for the third-tier trophy, but the rewards for the lesser competitions tend to be circa 25pc of the main one.
When Peak6 landed in late 2017, their ambition was to win the league every year because the only real route to progress on the continent is as champions. Magilton conceded on Thursday that Dundalk are now under pressure to simply qualify for Europe in 2022 but the Europa League Conference route is unlikely to make their ends meet. To miss out completely would be a cataclysmic failure.
The climate wouldn’t be so volatile if performances on the pitch were better. Dismay has grown because of a disastrous preparation for this season. There was a switch in policy to one-year contracts, a tactic which naturally led to speculation about exit strategies, and tried-and-trusted players Seán Hoare and Seán Gannon opted for the long-term security available at Shamrock Rovers.
Dundalk delved into the foreign market, bringing in players from Latvia, Albania, Norway, the Faroe Islands and South Korea with Giovagnoli to the fore in the sourcing of talent, although the recruit of Korean winger Han was part of a broader club policy to ‘showcase and enhance our brand’ in Asia. These quirky moves could be shrugged off if the team was winning but a dismal start to the campaign poured on the scrutiny.
Giovagnoli’s lack of a UEFA Pro Licence meant that the club had to make a big song and dance about pushing Keegan forward as the ‘team manager’, even though it was clear that the Italian was calling the shots. Hulsizer was a backer of Giovagnoli, feeling that his wildcard appointment had saved 2020, but Magilton was known to be unsure about whether an unqualified coach should be plotting the way forward.
Keegan, for his part, has since said he was deeply uncomfortable with the arrangement, feeling like a “fraud” for receiving messages of congratulations for his appointment when behind the scenes he remained a minor player who had spent the bulk of pre-season in the office helping out with administrational work.
Outside of Dundalk, the only person of consequence who went on record to suggest Keegan was in charge was the League of Ireland director Mark Scanlon. “It’s been quite clear to us for a period of time that Shane is obviously the manager,” he said in March. Keegan was ready to quit at that stage, but he had bills to pay.
There’s a story going around that sums up the dynamic of the early weeks with Keegan on the sideline and Giovagnoli frequently confined to the stands. In the midst of one league game, the fourth official turned to a Dundalk substitute preparing to come on and asked who he was replacing. The player turned to Keegan for clarity and was met with a brief response which confirmed that the Laois native had no idea. This was only ever going to be a short-term solution and both Keegan and Giovagnoli departed in close succession.
Magilton taking temporary charge has created a more straightforward set-up, and he’s comfortable within the four walls of the dressing room, but it isn’t actually the job he was hired to do.
The reason Keegan was needed in the office in January was because of the increasing volume of departures that have caused alarm locally. Long-serving general manager Martin Connolly and the chief business officer David Minto were amongst those to head for the exit door. Connolly was placed on gardening leave by Hulsizer before Magilton’s arrival. Club doctor David Connolly left in January. Physio David Murphy handed in his notice this month. The turnover has been significant.
One of Magilton’s first tasks was to try and convince some hard-working local volunteers to return to the fold because their administrative and licensing expertise was needed. He was unable to execute that diplomatic mission with the experience of dealing with Hulsizer across 2020 cited as a reason.
The make-up of the board has also changed and the resignation of English-born, American-based Fred Spencer removes a presence from the non-Peak6 element of the takeover consortium. Multiple sources have confirmed that the elder Hulsizer is the dominant voice at board level. Former chairman and Peak6 employee Mike Treacy was not afraid to offer different opinions but he left in late 2019.
When Magilton was appointed, the expectation was that the chairman might take a step back, but staff on the ground are yet to see firm evidence of that. It must be acknowledged that the prevailing emotion stirred by Hulsizer is exasperation as opposed to animus. He could reasonably argue that Peak6 have invested money without getting consistent results and that is why he is so involved day to day – albeit operating remotely.
The sport is new to him, though, and staff and volunteers on the ground have found it hard to operate on his wavelength. He did strike up a rapport with managers Vinny Perth and Giovagnoli because he largely gave them what they asked for when a target was identified.
But a scattergun approach to recruitment, with some hefty signing-on fees and wages handed out, has upset the harmony that was a feature of the club’s years at the top of the tree.
Insult has been added to injury by former captain Stephen O’Donnell instigating an improvement at St Patrick’s Athletic by forging the right dressing-room culture at the heart of it. Dressing-room sources would assert that the departures of O’Donnell (August 2019) and new Derry City boss Ruaidhri Higgins (April 2020) from the coaching staff were a major blow.
In a recent interview with The Argus, Hulsizer claimed to be unaware of local discord, and a general tone of his response was that if his critics came up with the cash they could try and do a better job.
Yet, he also defended some of the more curious calls, such as the signing of American players who are clearly nowhere near the required standard of the LOI Premier Division, with a long-winded tangent speaking on how Jamie Vardy, N’golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez were once written off. Not one Dundalk player feels there is a future Vardy, Kante or Mahrez lurking in their ranks. The reality of the situation is that a lot is riding on the appointment of a permanent manager, even if there doesn’t seem to be any great rush to do so.
A glass half-full take on Dundalk’s position is that if Magilton and a new man are on the same page, then a degree of unity on the ground can be restored, with decision-making processes cleared up. But with a grim financial bottom line for 2021 inevitable, the rest of the year is effectively a damage-limitation exercise, the job of trying to fix something that was needlessly broken.