Dundalk returned to the Aviva Stadium for the first time on Thursday since last November and the scene of their FAI cup final defeat to Shamrock Rovers. But this time the home of Irish rugby and soccer was a theatre of dreams for the Oriel Park men as they beat KI of the Faroe Islands to qualify for the group stages of the Europa league.
They say football is a strange game and that it certainly is eight weeks ago Dundalk were on their way to hitting the rocks.They could not win a game after the resumption of the league following the lifting of some of the Covid virus restrictions .They very quickly bowed out of the league race as Shamrock Rovers continued to win every game and the defeat at Dalymount Park against Bohemians saw Keith Long's side brush past Dundalk into second place; a position they will now finish in as the season heads towards the end game.
Much has been written about the departure of Vinny Perth and the manner in which it happened.The man who succeeded Stephen Kenny two years ago as manager should never be forgotten, or his assistants, especially John Gill.
They came in at a time when the club lost one of it's best managers ever, just after winning the double in 2018.
Perth guided Dundalk to a magnificent title win and another season in the Champions League.
This season was thrown into chaos when the league was suspended for four months as a result of Covid.
From the day Dundalk played their first game after the league resumed against Pat’s at Oriel it was clear all was not well either on the field or off it in the dressing room.
The second game at Dalymount crystallised this when young Daniel Kelly was subbed only 20 minutes into the game. Daniel showed his frustration at the manager's decision. Many wondered if we would ever see Daniel play again for the club as he seemed to be out of favour with his boss. How ironic it was this talented young man was the hero to score the third goal which drove the Faroe Islands champions from our shores and saw Dundalk's march on Europe continue.
The amazing turn in Dundalk's fortunes won't ever gloss over for me how the club chairman handled affairs coming up to the downfall of Vinny Perth from his job as manager. Bill Hullsizer was reported to have started to interfere in the running of team affairs. Picking teams or suggesting who should or should not play just can't be allowed to happen. Maybe on reflection Vinny might have done things differently too. That is if he could have.
That's why I just want to send out a clear warning to Dundalk supporters, that what's to stop the chairman doing what he did again? Manager Fillippo Giovangoli said nobody would be telling him how to run his team as he was the boss.
But that is why weeks ago I called for Bill Hullsizer to step aside to ensure it would not happen again.The Dundalk chairman has denied he did interfere in team matters. That denial came in the past 10 days as confidence was returning throughout the club, with the amazing Italian manager infusing the club with a new vision.
When Fillipo and his assistant Guiseppee were unveiled as the new management I was flabbergasted as here we had two men coming in to try and rescue a team and club heading directly for the rocks. My surprise and fear were over the fact that neither had any experience of running a senior team or had the managerial Pro licence.
In an article I wrote immediately after their appointment I said that a seasoned league of Ireland boss needed to be brought in for next season.
How WRONG I was. From the first time I have met and spoken with Fillipo Giovangoli I have met a man who cares. He cares for his players in a father-like way. He is a kind and understanding man but yet has so far showed that he also has that tough streak that is also needed to be successful as a manager.
His restoration of Brian Gartland to the centre half position was also pivotal. Brian was not getting his regular game in the latter stages of the Perth era. That was explained by the fact that Brian was picking up injuries.
Now injury-free the big centre half is this team's talisman The Dundalk manager praised Brian Gartland at the end of Thursday's game. He said that Brian was delighted with the win but was not happy with the performance. Filippo said that was exactly how he felt and it was so good how big Brian had seen this as well. The Dundalk boss said it was excellent that Gartland was able to get this across to the other players although they themselves knew that already.
Gartland has been massive over the past few weeks. Indeed he has been immense since the start of the Kenny era. The club should, as I've already said, keep him on in some sort of coaching or management role when he does decide to retire.
Dundalk got a massive 3.5 million euro for winning last Thursday .The game was not easy. Sean Murray put the Irish champions in front in a first half they controlled. Daniel Cleary Dundalk's young centre half got the second and Dundalk were in cruise control.
The Faroe Island men then dominated and but for some good Gary Rogers saved Dundalk would have been in trouble. The inevitable happened with 15 minutes to go when the opposition got a goal back.
But then somewhat against the run of play Dundalk got the deserved winner.
Young Daniel Kelly was sent clear and with the guile and, experience of someone double his age, the Dubliner placed the ball beyond the reach of the Faroe Islands champion’s keeper with the ball delightfully bulging the net.
Daniel wrote himself into Dundalk history folklore with that goal and sent the outgoing champions into the group stages.
After the game Filippo told me he was delighted with the win. He said he wanted to get Spurs in the group stages. Jose Mourinho was a hero of his, he said. Ironically it was to be the arch enemies of Spurs that Dundalk drew. Arsenal were drawn against the Italian manager's team. Also in the group are the Austrian champions Rapid Vienna and Norwegian champs Molde FC.
It will be Giovanni v Mikel Arteta in the first game of the group. That game will be played in the Aviva in Dublin. In fact, all of Duhdalk's home group stage games will be played there.
The really sad note of the night was the complete absence of Dundalk supporters because of the Covid restrictions. My heart went out to the many Dundalk supporters who expressed their delight at the result but yet their gut wrenching disappointment at not being able to attend such an historic game.
Fillippo Giovdngoli's rise to fame in the soccer front parallels with the rise to fame of the fictional boxing character Rocky Balboa.
Rocky the Italian stallion as he was known was offered the chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. The fictional boxer shocked the world by becoming king of the boxing ring for many years having been plucked from nowhere.
The film of course made actor Silvester Stallone a fortune and huge fame.
Filippo's rise to success is very similar to that of the fictional Italian Stallion Stallone.
His players took to their new boss with utter delight. They started to play for their manager immediately. They qualified for the quarter finals of the FAI cup and group stages of the Europa league.
Filippo is a very charismatic man. He laughed when I mentioned that he was being called Papa Giovangoli. I asked him about stories in the national papers where he said there were some who had knives in his back the moment he came. He said they did not believe he would succeed. Fillipo said this was human nature and it did not bother him what people said or wrote about him.
The Dundalk manager has not seen his wife or child since he came to Dundalk. He said that his life was at the moment dominated by football. He explained his family would not be moving over to Dundalk for the time being as it was too dangerous with the virus being so virulent. They are at home in Italy.
Fillippo said he loved the town of Dundalk and would be staying on next season. Chairman Bill Hulsizer indicated this as well after the game on Thursday.
The 77 year old American said a new contract would be worked out as soon as he can get back to Ireland.
Like so many, Mr Hulsizer says he will be returning to Ireland at some stage, but when exactly it was is not yet known.
Dundalk know that despite getting to the group stages of the Europa League, his main aim was to ensure that Dundalk get back into Europe next season.
He points out that this won't be easy. Dundalk's recent slide down the table was mainly due to the games they have in hand. It's also because Dundalk dropped key points last week being forced by the FAI to play champions elect Shamrock Rovers with a much weakened side just four days away from the Europa league game.
Pat Dolan in his column in the Star hit out at the FAI this week for forcing Dundalk to play the game.
He said that given the circumstances Dundalk were in being forced to play a weakened team the decision to allow the game go ahead showed the disrespect the FAI have for the league.
The phone belonging to the Dundalk boss has not stopped ringing since Thursday.
The WhatsApp messages spiralled out of control from the time Daniel Kelly's shot lay in the net and sent Dundalk through.
Fillippo said he was trying to get back to everybody but that will take some time.
His wife had been crying when she spoke to him on the phone before the game. After Thursday's game she was laughing. Fillipo said that was a good thing as had it been the opposite way it would have meant things were not going well on the field.
The likeable Italian said that all his friends and family were super excited and that because they are happy he was happy that he had made them so happy.
Filippo will not be signing any extra players for the group stages as Stephen Kenny did when Dundalk were last there in 2016. The Dundalk boss says he is putting his trust in the players he has.
Patrick McAleney was top class on Thursday. The Derry man was sheer class and most definitely quelled any fears there were about the midfield which was short Chris Shields who was out through suspension.
McEleney was my man of the match despite the fact that he did not score. He was the midfield general who ran things aptly in place of missing captain Shields.
Another Derry man, Michael Duffy, was also immense. Duffy is enjoying his football again under his new boss. Hopefully he will stay on at Oriel next season as his contract expires in December.
Unfortunately Thursday's win was left behind on Sunday when Dundalk gifted Finn Harps two points in the league at Oriel.
I could not believe that the manager had left out 10 of his starting 11 that played against KI in the Aviva.
Squad rotation is fine if you have the players good enough to do that. Unfortunately Dundalk do not have as strong a squad to rotate to win games.
Some of the players are just not good enough.
When asked after the game on Sunday night if he thought his changing of the team had a bearing on the result he said no. Filippo said that Dundalk have such a game nearly every three days in October; there needs to be rotation in the squad. But the squad is simply not good enough.
When Stephen Kenny or Vinny Perth were in charge they would never have rotated the squad to the extent the manager had done following a European game. But the current manager would not accept this.
I asked the manager if he had full control of looking for new players or trying to keep players he wanted that were out of contract at the end of the season. The manager was evasive on this, in my opinion, but did seem to indicate there were others who would be involved in the decision making.
I asked him if the chairman of the club Bill Hullsizer had any role in team affairs. He said ‘no’ and that he was doubtful if it did happen when the last manager Vinny Perth was in charge. I and a number of other journalists said it did.
The manager was then asked if the chairman was meddling in team affairs currently. He dismissed this out of hand .
I asked him about his contract for next season as boss. Filippo said that this was a private matter between himself and the board. He would not discuss it further. The Dundalk manager said there were so many things happening at Oriel right now that his contract for next season was not getting full attention yet.
I was surprised at that as reports in the national media at the weekend had indicated the manager was being offered a new contract immediately for next season.
These reports were clearly untrue. It is worrying that as the manager himself clearly does not have a contract for next season that he is powerless to either strengthen the squad for next season with outside players or ones with other clubs .
And to finish off late after the game, NPHET reported they wanted a full lockdown of the country because of the worsening of the Covid virus.
The implications are clear on what it will have on sport if invoked.But that's for another day.
The manager also confirmed that he is in regular contact with the club chairman in America.That is to be expected in every club around the country .
Next Friday Dundalk play Pat's at Inchicore Dublin in a massive game. They must win to maintain their push for third place and Europe. Dundalk have won only once in their last seven league games. I would be worried as Pat’s have hit form now and are always difficult to get a result from in Dublin.
It's been an eventful week. Happiness to qualify for the group stages of the Europa League and a payout of 3 million euro by UEFA. But on Sunday we saw only one of the starting 11 from Thursday play for Dundalk. A number of the players from Thursday did come on as subs but to no real effect.
Dundalk were denied two stonewall penalties in the Harps game on Sunday but that's football.
It's been another busy week in Dundalk. Take care and I will talk to you all next week.
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