With the new Airtricity League season just over seven weeks away, it will soon be all systems go at Oriel Park.
Stephen Kenny’s first-team returned to training on Sunday morning and the Carrick Road venue will host its first competitive game of 2014 when Irish League side Coleraine visit in the Setanta Cup on February 24.
Behind the scenes, there have been a number of changes during the close season with the most significant being the departure of General Manager Paul Johnston.
He stood down from his role approaching the New Year and has taken up a position with StatSports, the local sports science company run by Alan Clarke and Sean O’Connor.
With Gerry Matthews in place as owner, Johnston was appointed Dundalk FC Club Promotions Officer at the beginning of 2007 and became the club’s General Manager four years later.
In his six-year tenure, he experienced the highs and lows which seem to go hand in hand with a League of Ireland club: promotion, European football, boardroom unrest and financial disaster.
And, by his own admission, he never expected the roller coaster ride that was in front of him when he started work at Oriel Park on Monday, March 12, 2007.
At that stage, Dundalk were still in the First Division and Johnston said that trying to publicise a club outside of the top flight posed lots of problems. After near misses in the two previous years, promotion finally arrived on an unforgettable night in Kildare in November 2008. According to Johnston, it opened up a new world of possibilities.
“It was only when we got promotion to the Premier Division that we could see the full potential. The FAI had put a lot of emphasis on the top flight teams with things like MNS only focussing on the Premier Division. With television comes lots of exposure and it opens up a lot of doors. It gave us a real chance to push forward in a national sense and we could partner up with national brands, along with local companies.”
Dundalk’s first season back in the top flight after seven years was an action packed one. Under the stewardship of Sean Connor, the club finished in a creditable 5th place, earning a European spot the following season due to the relegation of both Cork City and Derry City for financial irregularities. However, the memories that linger on are that of the 20 red cards dished out to Dundalk players in just 40 competitive games.
“It certainly was an eventful first season back and we were treading on eggshells anytime we met FAI officials that year,” laughed Johnston. “They weren’t too delighted with our disciplinary record but they were really delighted to have us back in the Premier Division.
“Things might not have worked out for Sean but he had some very good players in that squad,” he continued.
“Everybody was really looking forward to being back and the first game against Bohemians at Oriel Park really sticks in my mind. The atmosphere was phenomenal. It gave you a sense of what Dundalk FC is all about. It was all set up for us and the town didn’t let us down. The people came out in their droves.”
With Connor gone, Ian Foster was the man who took Dundalk back into Europe in 2010. The Europa League 1st Round Qualifier saw Dundalk overcome CS Grevenmacher from Luxembourg before they bowed out against crack Bulgarian outfit Levski Sofia.
The Grevenmacher tie was the first continental game to be played at Oriel Park since the visit of Honved in 1991 and Johnston recalled the work that went into getting the old ground into shape to pass UEFA requirements.
“The amount of work in trying to prepare the club, mostly off the field, was incredible. I remember the UEFA document coming into the room and it was like an encyclopedia. We had to create a team and split it up but we got there and it was great to have the two games at Oriel.”
After briefly spending some time at the summit of the Premier Division table, Dundalk finished 6th in Foster’s first season in charge, earning them a place in the 2011 Setanta Cup.
The draw for the cross-border competition saw Dundalk face Linfield for the first time since the infamous meeting between the sides in the 1979 European Cup when riots turned Oriel Park into a battleground.
The first leg took place in Windsor Park on St Valentines Day 2011, when a Daniel Kearns hat-trick inspired Dundalk to an unforgettable 5-3 win. A 1-1 draw in the second leg secured Dundalk’s passage to the next round.
For Johnston, the competition holds special memories.
“From Dundalk FC’s point of view, geographically and from the club’s history, the Setanta Cup is made for us.
“To be honest, we were all looking forward to it with a little bit of trepidation and there were plenty of deep breaths when the draw was made,” he smiled. “We had lots of meetings with the PSNI, the Gardai and both clubs before the trip to Windsor Park. The club officials went up early and it was a fantastic sight to see all our fans arrive in a convoy. There wasn’t one problem on the night.
“For the second leg at Oriel Park, we had to close off the whole Carrick Road. That was new for us. When that information arrived we were a bit apprehensive. The residents in the area were aware of what happened in 1979 but, to be fair, the Gardai, Linfield, and the residents of the Carrick Road all played their part and it passed off without a hitch.”
Despite guiding Dundalk to a place in the Setanta Cup final - where they were beaten by Shamrock Rovers - Foster’s contract wasn’t renewed at the end of the 2011 season.
As that campaign came to a close, there were signs of boardroom unrest bubbling below the surface. Matthews signaled his intentions to stand down but a deal to offload the club to a consortium led by Fastfix fell through and Dundalk went into the 2012 season with an owner who wanted out.
On the field, the appointment of Sean McCaffrey as manager turned out to be a disaster. In early July, with attendances dwindling and the club fighting relegation, the Monaghan man was sacked.
At that stage, relegation seemed like the most positive outcome for the club. Up for sale and haemorrhaging money on a day-to-day basis, it felt, according to Johnston, that the wolves were well and truly at the front door of Oriel Park.
“The money coming in didn’t match the money that was going out so we were really close to going out of existence,” he said.
The low point for Johnston came in May of that year when he had to inform the club’s players that there would be no wages paid that week.
“That was a serious low. To go in and tell lads with kids, wives and mortgages that there was no money to pay their wages was easily the worst aspect of the job.
“Gerry (Matthews) and the board at that time pulled together and tried everything we could to get to the end of that season and there were huge workings behind the scenes to ensure that the club wouldn’t close.”
Matthews finally relinquished control of the club towards the back end of 2012 with Fastfix taking the reins and they moved quickly to install Stephen Kenny as their manager. The rest, as they say, is history. In Kenny’s first season he assembled a squad who took Dundalk to within four points of the league title and to a semi-final of the FAI Cup.
With the club being in such rude health, Johnston felt it was the right time to move on to pastures new.
“It was a very tough decision for me to make,” said Johnston.
“The timing is right. The club are in a great position, on and off the pitch. They have owners who want to develop it and finances to do that so there wasn’t a better time to make a decision like that.
He concluded: “It has been hugely rewarding for me. I left Dundalk prematurely as a player so to get the chance to come back make a contribution to the club was fantastic.”