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03 Oct 2022

Gerry Malone pays tribute to a fallen great of Dundalk FC Tommy Connolly

Gerry Malone pays tribute to a fallen great of Dundalk FC Tommy Connolly

Left, Tommy Connolly, then assistant manager of Dundalk FC, centre, Dermot Keely manager and Mickey Whelan, First team Coach during the 1995 season

Dundalk FC had a week of emotions up and down on and off the pitch. The club lost it’s Mr Soccer when news filtered through early on Tuesday morning that former player and manager Tommy Connolly had passed away at the age of 74.

Tommy had been ill for some time, but news of his passing left the town in complete shock. Gaelic football had also lost a son as Tommy was closely affiliated to local club Clan Na Gael. In his latter years Tommy also spent time as a coach with the famous Dundalk club.

On the pitch Vinny Perth continues to work the oracle as Dundalk qualified for round three of the qualifying rounds of the Europa Conference League. A late goal from Will Patching put the Oriel Park men through.

But this was the week the town mourned the loss of one of it’s most famous and successful sporting sons.

Tommy won three league titles and an FAI cup with Dundalk as assistant manager, including the club’s second double in its history as assistant manager in 1988.This may have been his greatest achievement.

Tommy started his soccer career as a player with the famous old local schoolboy league side Rangers. Tommy’s soccer home during his very young years was Moreland where he played many games not far from his current local family home.

He joined Dundalk’s youth team as a player in early 1963 and was with the club on that team when Oriel Park underwent a complete revamp including the now infamous floodlights in 1966. He made his first team debut with the Lilywhites under then manager Liam Tuohy in April 1970.

He made his debut against Saint Patrick’s Athletic. His debut saw Dundalk win 2-1. He went on to make a total of 29 appearances between 1970 and 1973. Tommy’s lone success as a player was in the season 1971-72 when he was a member of the team that won the League of Ireland Shield.

Tommy scored once for Dundalk in a 2-0 win against Shelbourne in September 1972. The season 1972-73 was one of the worst in the club’s huge history. Managed by Fran Brennan the club finished second from bottom and had to apply for re-election to the league.

There was no relegation in those days and clubs who finished in the bottom two were at the mercy of the FAI as to whether they would be kept in the league. Drogheda finished bottom that season.

Willy McKeever, a great friend of Tommy played with him on the youth team and then on the senior team. Willy should never be forgotten by supporters. He succeeded Mickey Fox as groundsman and retired just a few years ago.

Indeed, Willy only lives across the road from Oriel. I’m dumbfounded why the club does not use Willy in some capacity to look after the pitch. He has never spoke to me about this but I know if the club were ever stuck he would help.

Willy is in deep grief now as he and were close friends. The club nearly went bankrupt in 1973 however a new consortium of local business people took over in January 1973 saved the club.

The new board could not stop finishing in the bottom two. But they gradually rebuilt the club by taking on Dundalk’s most successful manager Jim McLaughlin in November 1974. John Smith had taken on the job in August 1973 but left in October 1974.

Player Peter Watson was caretaker boss for just a month when McLoughlin took over. Jim McLoughlin seeing Tommy Connolly’s leadership skills installed him as youth team manager in 1975.

Tommy through his success was also manager of the Leinster youth team squad from 1984 to 1990. Jim had unprecedented success as Dundalk manager between 1974 and 1983.

He departed Oriel for Shamrock Rovers in 1983. Former Chelsea and Republic of Ireland player John Dempsey took over at Oriel in September 1983.

Tommy Connolly took up his first stint as assistant manager to Dempsey. The Dempsey experiment just never worked out and he was relieved of his duties in 1984.

The new First Division was being installed at the end of that season with relegation from the Premier Division. Dundalk were in grave danger of going down. However the club ensured a stay in the top flight when a Benny Larryea goal against Longford ensured Dundalk would be in the new top flight.

Tommy was to have four further roles as first team manager right up to 2006. In 1985 the Dundalk FC board appointed Turlough O’Connor as manager with Tommy being installed as assistant manager. The two men had one of the most successful periods the club has seen.

They ensured the club remained in the top four of the Premier Division every year until April 1993.They won two league titles and one FAI Cup. Tommy and Turlough won two League Cups in 1986-87 and 1989-90.

Season 1993 began with a poor start by Dundalk. Turlough O’Connor had told then Chairman the late Eamonn Hiney he felt it was time for him to go after the cup final. But Eamonn persuaded Turlough to change his mind and stay.

However, in late September/early October 1993 The O’Connor reign came to an abrupt end when his side went down at home to Monaghan United. Tommy was once again installed as caretaker manager.

He was broken hearted to see his colleague leave but even he knew Turlough O’Connor was right to go. Tommy had not long to find out who would take over. There were two clear choices, Jim McLaughlin or one of Jim’s former players at Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers Dermot Keely.

The papers all speculated Jim was a shoe in. One paper had a back page headline sayings Midas Jim set to return. Well that’s not how it turned out. The board were split evenly down the middle. The casting vote of Chairman Eamonn Hiney brought Dermot Keely back as manager not player.

Tommy Connolly enjoyed his time working with Dermot. He had the height of respect for his new boss. Thus, Tommy was back in his old role as assistant manager. The season 1993/1994 saw the club’s financial crisis continue to deepen.

In November 1994 the old company folded and a new company arose from the ashes. Led by Enda McGuill a group of investors brought in some stability. Remarkably things were going well on the pitch and Dermot and Tommy built a new side to challenge for honours.

In April 1995 three teams still had a chance to win the title. Derry, Shelbourne and Dundalk. Dundalk had to win and hope that Derry and Shelbourne would not get full points in the last games of the season.

The Dundalk Galway game finished ahead of the Derry game. They beat Galway 2-0 with Tom McNulty and Mick Doohan scoring. Shels were gone. I connected up a live radio commentary feed to the PA system.

Oriel was in silence for 15 minutes up to and including when the final whistle blew in Athlone. The silence suddenly was broken with a huge cheer.

Bottom of the table Athlone had held mighty Derry. Dermot Keely and Tommy Connolly had guided Dundalk to another title. Remembering that day some time on Tommy said he never felt or saw anything like it.

The brave Dundalk man told me it was an eternity waiting for the Derry game to finish. Tommy said he always knew Dundalk could do it. The belief and confidence in the man’s eyes was there for me to see.

His side had been behind all season but snatched it at the end. With a smile beaming from his face Tommy said the league table never lies.

That was 1995, less than a year later Dermot Keely moved on in early 1996.Tommy once again was thrown into the role of manager. He kept things steady enough on the pitch to the end of the season.

During the summer Chairman Enda McGuill appointed John Hewitt as new boss. He was a Scottish man and was famous for winning the European cup winners cup under Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen.

John was a player manager with Tommy reverting to assistant. Things did not go well on the pitch results wise and it soon became clear Dundalk were in trouble. In October my dad Jim Malone passed away at the age of 75. Tommy Connolly was a magnificent support to our family and to me.

The club gave Jim Malone who became a director in 1955 a very well-organized guard of honour. Tommy got on well with my Dad. He had the highest of respect for Tommy.

I remember Tommy looking back at me as he walked behind my dad’s coffin. He nodded to me. That nod said everything. It was saying that it’s hard to lose a loved one but that things will be OK. I took great confidence from this sign of a great man, a leader. And yes Tommy was a great inspiration.

Tommy was also manager of the Irish U 15’s, 16’s and U 19’s at various stages. He worked closely with Dundalk IT. Tommy worked closely with me at the local school I taught in Colaiste Ris.

He won at least seven north Leinster Senior Leagues along with a runners up spot in a Leinster cup final and also won two Leinster Championships.

In 1992 he brought the school to the Leinster Cup final. This was at under 14 level. The team were beaten narrowly by Saint Declan’s CBS Dublin. Had the school won the All Ireland that year it would have represented Ireland in the Inter Schools European nations cup in Sweden.

I worked with Tommy while he worked with my teams. He spoke to the kids in their own language. He knew their culture. He knew how to organize and lead. He was so successful with them. Yet he would take no praise. He was so humble.

Damian Duff and Kenny Cunningham were amongst the players he gave their international debuts to.

Tommy was also part of the under 19 coaching squad that made the semi-finals of the European championships in 2011. The side included Matt Doherty, Derrick Williams, John Egan and Jeff Hendricks all senior internationals. Sean Murray was also part of that team.

After Tommy left Dundalk finally In 2008 he took up a role with Bellurgan United. In 1999 Tommy took charge of the Dunfield project .It was a reconciliation project between Dundalk and Linfield.

Hundreds of kids were involved. The new Hiney Park was used by Tommy as the location for training kids from Belfast and Dundalk. The project lasted 2 years. Tommy also got his European coaching licence in 1999.

Tommy also developed the Dundalk school boy centre of excellence. It embraced the whole local schoolboys scene. Tommy also spent time away from the soccer working as a GAA coach.

He was heavily involved in working closely with his local club Clan na Gael and knowing Tommy he fitted the club motto well, Once a Clan always a Clan.

Current Dundalk manager Vinny Perth dedicated Thursday’s win in Levadia to Tommy. Tommy paid a last visit to Oriel last Tuesday when his remains drove in and around the outside of the ground. Supporters turned out for the last visit of a Dundalk icon.

Deepest sympathies to his wife Kitty and all of his family particularly children Sharon, Thomas, Michael, Andrea, Catherine, Barry, Ciaran, Nicola And Niamh.

Tommy’s funeral mass took place at Saint Nicholas’s church at 11 o’clock last Friday. Burial took place following the mass to Saint Patrick’s cemetery Dowdallshill Dundalk.

Many of Tommy’s former players and former managers attended. Alan O’Neill, Joey Malone, Turlough O’Connor, Larry Wyse and much more.

Former manager Dermot Keely passed on his sympathies to Tommy’s family on social media. Dermot was also in attendance. Dermot himself suffered a terrible tragedy just weeks ago after his son who was in his late 30’s died suddenly. Many of the famous 1988 squad were there.

One last foot note on Tommy, I remember Tommy was with myself and former Dundalk player Willy Crawley In Ballymun where Colaiste Ris took on the local Comprehensive school in Dublin in an under 14 Leinster cup game.

In school soccer matches there are no assistant referees. Each school must supply an adult to take up the role.

Tommy was so passionate about the game that he disagreed with a number of the referee’s decisions .The referee obviously did not like to have his decisions corrected . Over he came to Tommy and showed him a red card sent him off.

It was a disgraceful decision as all Tommy did was disagree with the referee over a penalty decision he made. Next day the picture of Tommy being sent off appeared in the sports section of the Independent.

Little did we know that the Indo had sent a photographer to the game. Our team was doing so well that we were grabbing the attention of the national media. The headline in the paper said in bold print Referee sends off his assistant. Good news was we went on and won 2-1.

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