Vinny Perth hails Stephen Kenny influence as Dundalk seek elusive domestic treble
Dundalk have succeeded where bigger clubs with deeper pockets failed - they appointed a successor to a managerial legend who has maintained the club's standing as Premier Division champions. Even if they fail to win the FAI Cup today, the manner in which they won the league is a clear reminder that Vinny Perth has the winning touch of his predecessor Stephen Kenny.
In appointing Perth, Dundalk opted for the 'boot-room' approach which proved so successful for Liverpool in the '70s and '80s, and avoided the mistakes which led Manchester United, Everton and Nottingham Forest astray as they sought to maintain the success of legends such as Alex Ferguson, Howard Kendall and Brian Clough.
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Perth's links with Kenny go back to his playing days. Having played all the way from under-12 to Leinster Senior League with Cherry Orchard, he came to national attention when he scored the winning goal in the Intermediate Cup final against College Corinthians in Dalymount. Kenny snapped him up for Longford Town, where the midfielder went on to win two FAI Cup medals.
He later worked for Kenny as a match analyst at Derry City, before moving into coaching at Sacred Heart FC, and then management with Malahide United, where he showed his winning touch hadn't deserted him. "They had just been relegated and we won the division and got back to the top division," he recalled. "That was a massive learning curve."
As those 18 months at Malahide were his only managerial experience, was his selection as manager at Dundalk a surprise? "No, it was recognition from the people who work there for the amount of work I did alongside Stephen Kenny. Me and him are very close. He is a big brother to me and has really helped my development."
Winning over the players was not a problem. "As assistant manager for the previous five years I always had their respect. As manager, a different level of respect is required and I had to set clear boundaries, but we did it in a seamless manner. As Ruairi Higgins got into my old role, it allowed me to drift from being the main coach to manager. It's important that I had expertise with that group and that we didn't lose continuity."
Finding time for himself was a different matter. "It's a 24-hour-a-day job, even the one day off I had the phone was still ringing. What Ruairi has brought to the group is brilliant at the coaching and so I took my first day off to watch Leinster (rugby) train. I spent the day with them.
"I learned that we criticise ourselves in the League of Ireland too much - our strength and conditioning and match analysis are as good as any. The way Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster worked together was brilliant. I learned small lessons, but all worth taking away."
With so little time, how does he manage scouting for new talent? "Everything is on video now, but I also have people we trust. We are scouting outside Ireland as well now, and flying to other countries is probably the next step. The squad continues to evolve. I have signed 20 players and we're very comfortable with that; some contracts may also be extended during the season."
Perth's team are noted for being quick learners so how does that come about? "We review all our games and see where we can improve. Rugby are ahead of us in that, but we have had a lot of open video sessions with the players where they are free to speak and come up with solutions. Sometimes good, sometimes not so."
Under his predecessor, Dundalk were noted for the number of ever-presents in their team, but there were none in the league this season. However, Perth doesn't regard his system as one of rotation. "I believe in freshness. For instance, Daniel Cleary is probably the best centre-half in the country, but he played his best on his return after we left him out. That's sometimes the way - players think they have something to prove."
On the suggestion that he had opted for young legs for the European games, Perth commented: "They are all in the team on their merits. The squad has evolved, but most of them have played 30 or so games this season between League and Cup games."
Unlike previous title-winning seasons, it took Dundalk to May 10 before they assumed the top spot in the division, a place they then never relinquished. So how did that long chase affect the new manager?
"I was very confident that the team were where they should be. The damage that our first game at home to Sligo did, when Robbie Benson broke his leg and Patrick McEleney broke a bone in his foot, was Seán Murray and Jordan Flores were relied on more than they needed to be.
"They were thrown in at the deep end. We had 29 shots that night but only scored one goal and it reminded me of a game in Athlone in 2015 when we scraped in with a 92nd minute penalty. Past problems help you to be relaxed when curve balls are thrown your way.
"So we were very relaxed in our pursuit of Shamrock Rovers. It's easier when you're in good form to keep going, and the only game we played badly in and lost was away to Sligo. That was a mixture of form, confidence and injuries."
As for pressure facing into today's cup final, where a win would see them complete a historic treble, Perth dismisses that also: "There was no pressure on us heading into this week - we have achieved our goals. And win or lose I'll ultimately reflect on one of the great seasons by a Dundalk team, and afterwards we'll be very quickly focused on our Unite Cup tie against Linfield. Keeping the hunger in the group is so important."
Side by side with managing Dundalk, Perth has been busy studying for his Pro Licence. Among the highlights, he lists "a brilliant talk by Michael O'Neill on his career and how he prepares his international team; an amazing presentation by the Dutch assistant manager, who offered an insight into what Dutch football is all about, and a sharing of ideas at UEFA HQ with representatives from the Slovakia and Norway FAs."
While the loss of Chris Shields is a big blow today, he won't be using it as an excuse should Dundalk lose, "but if we do win it will probably cement the fact we are one of the great teams in the history of the League of Ireland."
Dundalk v Shamrock Rovers, RTé2, 3.40
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