Tuesday 25 September 2018

Questions linger but time will reveal Dundalk plans

A general view of Oriel Park during Dundalk's clash with Drogheda in the Malone Cup last month Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
A general view of Oriel Park during Dundalk's clash with Drogheda in the Malone Cup last month Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

"We don't have all the answers right now."

The straightforward admission from new Dundalk co-owner Jordan Gardner after Sunday night's public meeting at Oriel Park was probably the line to take away from the gathering.

It is safe to say that some of the fans who turned up for the event expected a little more. Early reports about a US takeover featured an off-the-mark reference to a new 7,500-seater stadium.

Confirmation that an upgrade of facilities is down the short-term list of priorities left some observers deflated.

The suggestion from the floor that a "lorry-load of gravel" was required to sort out a troublesome puddle on the way to The Shed section of the ground gave the guests a flavour of just how primitive some of the problems are.

The 'Cinderella' aspect of Dundalk's fairytale 2016 was enhanced by the fact they only had two full-time administrative staff and couldn't afford to play games in their own dated ground. Those issues were highlighted as priorities in order for the club to move to the next level.

Investment

It would appear, however, that the US consortium of businessmen who have come together along with investment company Peak6 are eyeing another European run before they really start to look at infrastructure. Top-down investment built on results draws natural unease.

However, if there was a picture to go with some of Irish football's highest-profile false dawns, it would be the artist's impressions of new stadiums that made for good photo opportunities but never actually came to pass.

In that context, the Americans' admission that they are unsure of the financial and planning implications is arguably preferable to making a promise that they can't keep.

Playing European games out of the town is an emotive issue and new CEO Malachy Brannigan did seem to be slightly unaware of just how stringent UEFA regulations can be when he spoke of temporary solutions at Oriel Park.

Indeed, it's apparent that the proprietors have a fair bit to learn about the idiosyncrasies of the Irish scene.

Their enthusiasm on and off stage is genuine, and that is what impressed Dundalk's outgoing owners and manager Stephen Kenny.

The challenge will be retaining that when they meet the roadblocks that come with the territory; issues with prize-money, the absence of a TV deal and other local quirks were discussed in a more informal setting.

Brannigan asserted that the practice of losing top players to the UK for nothing had to end.

"We can't stop the rest of the country but we can try and stop it from here," he said. "How? You make sure you retain players that have value and make sure this is a good place for them to work in the first place.

"If they want to go to England or Europe, we won't stop them but we'll make sure, if we can, there will be value coming from that contract being transferred."

In theory, that is sound logic. In practice, he might find that any promising youngster in Ireland will be advised by their agent to sign short-term deals to leave them free to pursue other options.

The Americans want to change a culture, and have been bemused by negative commentary on their arrival which is at odds with their glass-half-full approach.

Ironically enough, it is hardcore League of Ireland fans - who will do their best to sell it when the action resumes again on Friday week - who are often the biggest sceptics when it comes to 'outsiders', a bit like patrons who love their local yet wonder aloud why anybody else would want to drink there.

Officials and supporters of Dundalk's rivals have their own obvious reason for hoping it doesn't all work out. But they are being guided by the head too; Cork's loyal followers have felt the pain of giving the keys of the house to the wrong people.

Regime

It helps that Dundalk's new regime have already put themselves out there far more than the mysterious Arkaga operation ever did.

They have revealed their identities and pressed the flesh with the locals as opposed to letting their spokespeople do all of the legwork.

"It's important that we are not absentee owners," said Gardner, "Andy (Connolly) and Paul (Brown) had offers to sell the club to other groups and there's a reason they picked us. They got to know us and understood that we would be good gatekeepers for the club."

The fact that the investors are not rescuing a club in crisis is a spin on the usual tale; Brannigan has confirmed the finances are secure with a healthy bank balance retained from the 2016 run.

Kenny is under pressure to win the league this term, but European qualification for the sixth year on the trot should be a given.

In this new era of UEFA prize-money, that's a significant cushion. Dundalk have a seeding from past exploits which gives them a better chance of favourable draws in the early rounds. The stakes will be high; that cannot be overlooked.

Put simply, the doomsday scenario is that results fall short of expectations, losses are accrued and the buyers pull the plug. Away from the microphones, that scenario was teased out.

The Americans have a confident mindset that dismisses any talk of failure but, when pressed, they have warned against applying a linear approach to any profit or loss in their relationship with Dundalk.

Members of the new five-man board have interests in Bournemouth, Roma, Swansea and other clubs around Europe and they intend to add to the stable. It was downplayed on the stage on Sunday, but the sharing of expertise and ideas with regard to players and analytics is a part of a broader, longer-term vision; they have access to some extremely influential figures.

To call Dundalk a guinea pig would be a stretch, but it's tied in with expansion plans and, if lessons learned in Ireland end up being informative for elsewhere then it will be deemed a beneficial exercise. They are adamant, however, that Kenny retains the final say on recruitment.

Other details are still being teased out. Takeover talks were protracted and a couple of the new owners only made a first visit to Oriel Park on Sunday. A multi-tiered ownership model, with a range of different shareholders, brings challenges.

They bought with a destination in mind, yet it will take time to figure out how they can work together and get there. Sunday's Q & A was never going to provide definitive answers.

Certainly, the bottom-line target - European success - is a familiar goal. That said, the make-up of this takeover is different to anything Irish club football has witnessed before.

Different doesn't always mean better, but it would be rash to declare this project a busted flush before the full hand has been revealed.

Irish Independent

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