Daniel McDonnell: A once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Baku beyond
10,000 kilometres, 20 players, 14 staff, 15 fans, Daniel McDonnell travelled with the official party for the longest leg of Dundalk's ongoing European journey
The plane is somewhere over Georgia when Harry Taaffe, Dundalk's head groundsman and video analysis cameraman turns to Jimmy Fisher and asks about the striking tattoo on his arm. It's a sketch of a clock, set at a point which means everything to the 24-year-old.
"A quarter to eight Harry," he replies, "7.45. That's my happy time."
On match nights at Oriel Park, that's kick-off time, the moment where Jimmy's week comes alive. "Dundalk FC is my life," he says.
Jimmy doesn't drink or smoke and his first tattoo, the ribbon for mental health awareness, is indicative of struggles he faced in the past. His association with his hometown club has helped to bring him to a better place.
The Tús employment scheme for workers landed him the opportunity to help out Harry with his day-to-day work around the club. It was meant to be for a year but two years later he's part of the furniture, an infectious character that is a friend to players and staff. "They can't get rid of me now," he smiles.
As a fan, he has followed his club around Europe before. Jimmy can tell tales of 16-hour treks to Estonia and a Thomas Cook package to Cyprus. There was Alkmaar, Iceland, and a catalogue of other adventures across a six-year run of European qualification. He even left a hospital bed to take in some of the pre-season trip to Spain in January.
But this week was just a little bit special.
For this once-in-a-lifetime trip to Baku, a 5,000km excursion for their Champions League decider with Qarabag, Dundalk helped to facilitate the presence of workers that are invested in the club every day of the year, through rain, hail and shine.
Players will come and go but it's characters like Harry and Jimmy that keep all League of Ireland clubs ticking over. Dundalk's devotees have played their own part in a journey that has allowed them to see things which they never thought they would see.
'How do you get to Azerbaijan?' This was the question that faced Dundalk's logistics team in the aftermath of their penalty shootout win in Latvia. Martin Connolly, their general manager, had around 72 hours to get it all sorted.
Commercial flights were considered, but the logistics were fraught with what-ifs that went beyond the perils of awkward connection times. With three 60kg containers of gear to load, and a desire to bring hot food and other essentials on board in order to get every element of preparation right, the charter option was the percentage call for the mammoth trip - even if it was an expensive one, coming in at around €150,000.
The prep is a team effort. Kitman Noel Walsh, who was made full-time at the beginning of the year, oversees all the packing on the day before travel.
On the morning of the flight, he leaves his home in Meath along with his 17-year-old Daire to pick up the containers of spaghetti bolognese in Dunboyne on the way to airport. Daire will have a few stories to tell when he starts his Leaving Cert year in September. He's shown an entrepreneurial streak in his summer job, taking on the task of cleaning the players' boots for a bit of pocket money.
On stage one of the journey, he walks up the aisle dishing out the grub to players. That route is later occupied by the club secretary, Colm Murphy, who is doling out the A4-sized visas that he processed through Azerbaijan's online system. The paperwork is the job for the safest pair of hands. Ruaidhri Higgins, the assistant boss, says he doesn't know how the club would function without the schoolteacher. Colm has the on board assistance of his wife Jennette, an accountant, to help out.
The tight turnarounds of European football mean that it's all hands on deck. Dundalk's history was altered by the 2016 victory over Iceland's FH that kept the banks at bay and propelled Stephen Kenny's squad towards a €7m run to the Europa League group stages. Colm and Jennette were removed from the atmosphere on the flight home because they were laboriously filling out the handwritten visa forms for a game with old foes BATE Borisov in Belarus the following week.
When the squad arrived home in the early hours, Murphy went from one flight to another, bound for London and the Embassy of Belarus with a bag of passports and cash in hand. That was the longest day in this labour of love. Azerbaijan was a walk in the park by comparison.
Timisoara is in western Romania, with Patrick McEleney taking a look at a journalist's Google Maps to get a handle on the location for the scheduled refuelling stopover. John Gill, the first-team coach, avails of the permission to walk out on steps hooked up to the plane to take in the sunshine. Gill has chatted with the pilot, an Englishman based in Dubai who is married to a Liberian and friends with George Weah.
Football has taken League of Ireland people to a wide array of places. Gill still vividly recalls a nightmare trip to Kazakhstan with St Patrick's Athletic in 2011; a 17-hour jaunt via Dublin, London (where there was a lengthy visa-related delay), Almaty and then Astana and a four-hour journey on a rickety bus to Karagandy.
After the staff kicked up a fuss, they ended up travelling back via Dubai in much more salubrious conditions. Goalkeeper Gary Rogers was a member of that team and was also with the Saints when they went deep into south-western Russia to shock Krylia Sovetov Samara. McEleney recalls the passion of the Trabzonspor fans he faced as a Derry City player in 2014.
Higgins is another ex-Derry player who later details his arrival to Armenia in 2007, where the bus laid on for the visiting squad at the airport became a maze of dust when the players boarded.
This is a well-travelled squad, but chirpy Dubliner Daniel Kelly is new to the list. His room-mate in Latvia, Dane Massey, joked that he was sick of being grilled about the 2016 adventures. Kelly was playing amateur football with St Patrick's CY in Ringsend just over 18 months ago.
The winger can reel off the date (January 12, 2018) of his last game at that level. His 9-5 was working with an insurance company in Sandyford. Rapid-fire spells with Bray and Bohemians earned him a crack at full-time football with Dundalk. The 23-year-old had never gone further than Spain or Portugal. Now he's on his way to Azerbaijan's capital, still a little in disbelief of how quickly his fortunes have turned.
On Tuesday afternoon in the Hilton Hotel, Dundalk boss Vinny Perth wrapped up his press conference by chatting about his plans to take a trip into the old part of town, where traditional Middle Eastern culture is now interspersed with the excesses of Western opulence.
A decade ago, the idea of men wearing shorts was a no-no. But rules have been relaxed to aid Azerbaijan's attempts to become a player in the global sporting market. Burqa-wearing women now walk the same streets as tourists dropping in and out of Gucci or Zara, McDonald's or Starbucks.
From their stunning glass-sided, 21-storey hotel overlooking the Caspian Sea, the Dundalk squad are a bit removed from reality, although they will be given the freedom to go for a walk on the day of the game. The pitstop area from the Grand Prix that was hosted here in April is visible from their base camp on the third floor where they can meet and eat together.
"Where's all your Centras and your Spars, where's your Circle K for a packet of chewing gum," jokes Perth, with a nod to unfamiliar sights and sounds outside.
There was a time very recently where he would have visited a Centra or a Spar with his work hat on. As a part-time assistant manager under Stephen Kenny, Perth's day job was with Martin Food Equipment, a company that provides hot and cold food displays to shops and restaurants.
Perth invites the media to join the players and staff for lunch, and recalls getting his League of Ireland break under Kenny at Longford, helping the club to sell raffle tickets and decamping to a bar owned by the club's sponsor after every match.
He's a full-time football professional now, and the bulk of this Dundalk squad wouldn't relate to stories from his playing days. Away trips are about coffee; not beers.
They've had one night out in Europe and that was brought about by flight issues around the last game of the 2016 adventure in Israel.
Perth's role has changed since Kenny's exit brought him out of the shadows and it has presented challenges for the 42-year-old. He had a big role behind the scenes, but the dynamic is different now.
"I would have this joke with a player that if I was the gaffer, I would have picked you," he says. "They laughed at it and probably secretly hated it. Now I can't crack that joke anymore. They were like younger brothers but now I have to leave them out or tell them things they don't want to hear."
He speaks openly about how he's continuously learning about that aspect of the job. Pushing for a big squad comes with complications. There will inevitably be disappointed players who look back on this as a wasted journey.
The two Englishmen in the Dundalk party positioned themselves at opposite ends of the plane. Andy Burton, the former Sky Sports reporter, sits with the first-team staff.
He's effectively acting on behalf of Peak6, the Chicago-based investment firm that was the main player in the deal to buy Dundalk off the back of their European adventure. Burton was a recognisable face on Sky screens, especially around transfer deadline day where he'd tap into his contacts to deliver stories.
In 2016, he left that scene for the other side of the fence by joining Bournemouth's recruitment department, a role which brought him into contact with Dundalk's primary backers as they used to hold a 25 per cent stake there.
Burton was asked to help out at Dundalk last winter as they looked for a new CEO and his role has broadened. Using his network to work on transfers and contracts is a central part of his brief. He's friends with Jose Mourinho, who has genuinely been following Dundalk's progress via Burton and spoke with Perth on Facetime post-Riga - a quirky story that raised quite a few eyebrows around Irish football.
Peak6 aren't the sole owners of Dundalk, however. They are the largest contributor to an American based consortium that came together to make the purchase in late 2017. English born New York resident Fred Spencer, who has worked in venture capital and as a football agent, is in another wing of the ownership group. He checked in for Baku after flying transatlantic through the night. At the traditional pre-match dinner between representatives of both sides, there's merriment when a Qarabag official looks at the fresh faced Spencer and wonders if Home Alone star Macauley Culkin is in their midst.
These functions can be illuminating. Qarabag are powered by a state backed company owned by two Iranian brothers. Money is no object. Before the first leg in Oriel Park, a Mercedes hired by the visitors pulled up outside the ground, stuffed with Brown Thomas bags. Qarabag have numerous players earning around €500,000 per year. Dundalk have begun to dabble in deals worth around €100,000 which is massive in Ireland but small change in this company.
Their takeover has prompted scepticism, especially from other League of Ireland clubs that were burned in the past. They've encountered suspicion in Dundalk too; within a decade they've gone from bucket collections to keep the club afloat to handing control over to venture capitalists who want Dundalk to be viewed as a 'European club based in Ireland.'
Over €500k has been spent on behind the scenes improvements. New dressing rooms, a gym, and a video analysis room have changed the daily environment for players. Fans would like an Oriel Park upgrade, but a competitive first team is the clear priority. The owners would argue that rivals with superior stadiums didn't fund it with their own money. Dundalk will be using Tallaght for any further European activity.
Peak6 are numbers guys, using data to drive decisions, yet the most striking aspect of recent months has been the input of Matt Hulsizer, the multi-millionaire co-founder.
He's taken a personal interest in the Dundalk project, and so have his family. Last month, his father Bill spent five days in Ireland, taking in a few games and surprising his hosts with his ability to reel off statistics for youth team players. They do appear to be invested in this experiment.
Chairman Mike Treacy spoke of Qarabag as a model they could study. This trip provides a reminder of just how far they have to go.
"Five hundred police?" When the Azeris told their guests of the security presence for the sold-out clash in the Dalga Arena, Irish ears were puzzled. This seemed excessive for an away contingent made up of 15 supporters, the majority of whom are comfortably old enough to be the players' parents.
Paddy and Iris McGuinness are grandparents, and have followed Dundalk home and away together for decades, even in the darkest days at the bottom of the First Division.
Belarus 2016 is the only European tie of this era they've missed and that was because of the express turnaround. They'd been there the year before anyway.
Senior Dundalk players greet the couple like they are family. When Paddy was poorly a few years back, Brian Gartland and Andy Boyle made phonecalls to ask how he was doing.
For this game the Dundalk fans are housed in one row near the halfway line, and they quickly become aware that the cops are on hand to curb the behaviour of excitable natives.
A couple of topless pitch invaders cause consternation, and clashes behind the goal are a brief distraction from the football. Dundalk's energy levels have been drained by the 28-degree night-time temperatures.
When the fans note that the super-fit Sean Gannon is gasping, they sense that a second-half comeback is unlikely. He does regain energy to create Dundalk's best chance when the tie is still alive, but 3-0 is a fair reflection of the scoreline.
"We've had better nights," says Connolly, after a dash to the airport to meet their slot for the flight home.
Paddy and Iris know there have been many worse ones. They weren't always accompanied by a tour of a fascinating city and the luxury of the best hotel they've ever stayed in.
The mood is subdued, as players mingle with the supporters on the way through duty free, asking questions about the place that they were only able to experience in small doses.
As he boards, striker Patrick Hoban is speaking with college lecturer Kenneth Sloane about the Azeri fans who came up afterwards to wish them well in the Europa League. He bemoans the pace of the pitch that slowed down his flick that might have delivered an unlikely equaliser, yet there is an acceptance that the superior team prevailed.
Paddy is sanguine. He's got a plastic lunchbox full of sweets that is held out and offered to anyone who passes through the quiet cabin on the trek home. Goalkeeping coach Steve Williams comes down to chat with Paddy and Iris ahead of another pit-stop in Timisoara, which is now bathed in darkness.
At 6.30am on Thursday morning, just 12 hours after kick-off, the weary party make their way through Dublin Airport.
The majority will be packing their bags again next week. Provisional arrangements were already in place for winning and losing scenarios. The planning for Wednesday's meeting with Slovan Bratislava is well under way. For Paddy, Iris and a couple of the other ever-presents, Slovakia will be a 10th new destination of this golden window. Pragmatism fuels the belief that they must enjoy this while it lasts. But their owners are adamant that this is the new normal. Baku is an experience they will never forget, yet there really is no time to dwell on it.
Come Monday morning, they will be on the road again.