Gannon gets rewarded for buying into Kenny vision
Words uttered at half-time on his debut for Dundalk in 2014 transformed Seán Gannon's career to such an extent that he has been an ever-present on the PFAI Premier Division Team of the Year since.
The words? "I didn't sign you to be a safe right-back."
And Gannon immediately took Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny's message on board: "He wanted me to express myself more. At Dundalk we play an open game, and trust each other a lot. Even in Europe or an FAI Cup final we stick to that style rather than compromise our strengths."
As a result, the tall, elegant, pacey Gannon, blessed with great stamina and excellent crossing ability, is as often seen in his opponents' half as his own, confident that team-mates will mind the house in his absence. He is a vital part of the Dundalk package that has delivered so much success in the last five years, but he is quick to point to Kenny as the catalyst for this golden era.
"It's the amount of faith he puts in his players," he explains. "I have been lucky to play a lot of football for Stephen, whereas I didn't play very much with Michael O'Neill or Liam Buckley, when I was at Shamrock Rovers and St Pat's. They are all top managers but Stephen has helped me develop both as a player and a person, and I owe him a lot.
"He sets the standard when you come to play for him. You have to buy into the mentality that he wants. He tells you that, 'When you retire you want to be looking back at trophies'. We all came from clubs around the league and we weren't stand-out players but he instils a mentality and a hunger in the group to be successful."
Starting with his local Ringsend club, Cambridge Boys, where his mother Liz was his manager for a while, Gannon lined out at centre-forward and midfield, before a move to St Kevin's Boys saw him switch to centre-back and right-back. Shamrock Rovers signed him as a centre-back, but his time there nearly led him to quit the game.
The transition from youth football to the senior game isn't easy and, he said, "it happened quite quickly, going from the 18s to the 20s, and then the 'A' Championship was still around. You would have an 'A' Championship game as well as an under 20 the same week, with first team players in the 'A' team who needed a game. They were top players and it was good to be able to play with them and get a feel for the demands of the senior game.
"The 'A' Championship was brilliant for me but when you do step up, the demands are greater: the intensity of the training sessions increases and you need to have the confidence to play in the senior team. Without the 'A' Championship I would have found the transition more difficult.
"Sport has always been a main part of my life, but at Rovers to not play a lot proved disheartening and I began to wonder if this was for me. Travelling around the country and not even being in the squad made me contemplate packing it in, but when I first played under Stephen Kenny at Rovers I loved the way he liked to play. Then, when he asked me to sign for Dundalk, I thought that it was miles away, but now my mindset is to enjoy every game and I'm glad I stuck it out."
Moving from Shamrock Rovers to St Patrick's Athletic in 2013, Gannon enjoyed his time there, but soon realised that he was never going to dislodge Ger O'Brien from the right-back role. "I didn't play one game at right-back, it was either right-winger or centre-midfield, so there comes a time when you want to be playing and to see if you are good enough to be in the League."
Those questions were answered in his first season at Dundalk in 2014. "To be in the Team of the Year and nominated for Young Player of the Year by my fellow professionals was the greatest honour because it showed that they appreciated what I was trying to do."
He also gained admirers across the water, with Millwall inviting him for a trial at the end of the season, but he wasn't interested.
"After how much I enjoyed my first season with Dundalk, I hesitated to leave. If I never play abroad I'd still be happy with my career.
"There is a misconception that if you haven't gone to England by a certain age your career is over, but I've gone on to play at a high level with Dundalk, which shows you shouldn't give up. Now lots of younger lads are coming in to the League and there are a lot of good coaches, providing a higher standard than it's given credit for."
The highlights, of course, for anyone involved in the League, are the European games. "Unfortunately, we can be judged as players on our performances in those games," Gannon admits, "but we want to test ourselves against players from so-called higher leagues.
"With the results we have had we don't feel inferior to any team we play. This comes from the mindset of the manager and staff, even though the opposition might be littered with internationals. We want to win, and to do so in the style we work hard on, keeping the ball well and scoring good goals."
The prime example of this was the stunning 3-0 defeat of BATE Borisov which ensured qualification to the Europa League group stages, but they also excelled against the higher-rated Legia Warsaw when a controversial refereeing decision to award Legia a penalty proved decisive.
"We were so close to the Champions' League group stages," recalled Gannon, "and that decision was a sickener."
Going into today's FAI Cup final against familiar rivals Cork City, Gannon admits that he has some unfinished business to deal with. "When we beat them in the 2015 final I came off because I tore ligaments off the bone of my ankle in a tackle. It was an accident, and my ankle went further than it should with my studs catching in the turf. So this time I hope to be on the winning team in the final, and stay on the pitch for the 90-plus minutes.
"Our main objective this season was to win the League back and a lot of the lads have now won their first and want to win their first Cup, so the hunger and ambition is there. To win the double would be a great way to round off the season."
On Gannon's impressive CV, there is one amazing omission: he has never been capped by Ireland at any level. While his early flitting between roles may have had something to do with that at underage level, his success at senior level should surely have been recognised by now.
Ask him how he would describe himself as a player, and he modestly suggests: "I try to give everything for the team, leave nothing on the pitch, have no regrets, and as a full-back, get forward and join in our attacks."
At 27, there is a lot of classy football still to come from the Ringsender and, who knows, he may even emulate that legendary late-developing full-back, Tony Book, who spent most of his career with non-league Bath City before joining Manchester City at 31 and becoming the most successful captain in their history.
Cork City v Dundalk
RTé 2, 3.0
Sunday Indo Sport