14 Aug 2022

The Commentary Box: A review of the roller coaster 2021 season for Dundalk FC

The Commentary Box: A review of the roller coaster 2021 season for Dundalk FC

Pat Hoban greets the fans at Oriel Park. (Pic; Sportsfile)

After seeing the year out, one usually takes a look back at the season gone by and thinks of what might have been. For me one thing I will always remember about 2021 was how Dundalk could easily have been in the relegation play offs but instead held onto their Premier Division status.

It was such an unstable year where we saw the club have a change of manager five times. Four of these were in the season itself. The fifth came as the club got new owners that we were all delighted to see.

It was the year in which Peak6 were finally to leave and hand the club back to real football people. People who know Irish soccer.

The drama began at an infamous press conference at Oriel at the beginning of 2021. Local and national media were told by Sporting Director Jim Magilton that Filippo Giovagnoli was no longer manager of the team.

Shane Keegan, who had the Pro license that allowed Filippo to be manager during the 2020 season, was to be the new manager. Filippo was now demoted to coach.

The gasping media were told that all interviews involving management would be done through Shane. It was amazing stuff as Dundalk just four weeks before had appointed Filippo on a permanent basis as manager.

The media could still talk to Filippo, but they would have to go through the club to do so. The farcical feature of this crazy situation was that Shane Keegan was told only fifteen minutes before the press conference that he was the new manager.

Earlier this year in interviews after he walked out of the club a couple of months in, the Laois native stated that he did not want the job in any way shape or form.

His reason for leaving after a period was that Dundalk were too big a club to manage and that it needed somebody else who had more experience in bringing things forward. Filippo walked with him.

Pre-Season Woes

It was that crazy January of 2021 where the seeds were sown that would eventually see the club have its worst season in nine years and fail to qualify for Europe for 2022.

Sadly, Bill Hulsizer continued to run the club from Florida. It was Bill who would have the final say on contract length and wages.

Sporting Director Jim Magilton had said at his first press conference in December 2020 that it would be his brief to deal with player signings and contracts. I could have told him then that he was wrong.

Filippo Giovagnoli did bring in some of the foreign players in an experiment that sadly just did not work. Bill Hulsizer was only offering one year or seven-month contracts in the main.

The club as a result failed to keep players like Sean Hoare, Dane Massey and Sean Gannon. Other experienced players also fell by the wayside.

But Dundalk started the season with a massive panel of 35 players. The wage bill at one stage was reported to be €4 million for the season. This proved to be incorrect. However, the player budget was still a massive €2million euro for the year.

A Poor Start

Alessio Abibi took over in goals as Dundalk’s number one keeper.  It was to be a year to forget for him as things just sadly did not go his way. His defence in front of him was often very poor with Sonni Nattestad also proving very disappointing at centre half.

Latvian international Raivis Jurkovskis was by far the best of the international players that turned out last season for the club. Ole Erik Midtskogen was also disappointing. He left the club in mid-season.

Wilfred Zahibo came to the club with a big CV. However, of all the foreign players Wilfred turned out to be the most disappointing. The number of games where he played the 90 minutes were few.

Wilfred was also hit with a series of injuries but even when he was fit and playing he was very disappointing.

Yet interestingly the season did start with Dundalk besting Shamrock Rovers allowing them to retain the President’s Cup. However, as the league season started it soon became clear Dundalk were in trouble. They were to hover close to the dreaded play off place for most of the season.

Shane Keegan had enough of the problems that were growing and departed the club in April as did former manager Filippo Giovagnoli as mentioned above. Jim Magilton took over the manager’s job in a caretaker capacity in mid-April.

Vinny Perth Returns

By the beginning of June Magilton was going nowhere with the team. On June 17th Vinny Perth dramatically returned as boss. Vinny had been disgracefully dismissed from his job as manager in August 2020 after the club had lost three three games in a row.

Perth had been at the club as Stephen Kenny’s assistant for years. He became manager in December 2018 when Stephen Kenny left to take up the Republic of Ireland under 21 job.

In the season 2019 he brought what the club had said on his return was unprecedented success. He won the League, the EA Sports Cup and lost out on the elusive treble when Dundalk were beaten on penalties by Shamrock Rovers in the FAI Cup final.

Vinny came in and had a massive task to turn things around in June of this year. He said he was very confident he would get Dundalk back into Europe by finishing in a high position in the league.

It had to be very hard for Vinny to return. The results did not go so well for him at the start and included a 1-0 defeat away to Longford. The Dubliner brought in a new goalkeeper Cameron Yates. The new keeper made a dreadful mistake as the game moved towards its end.

A shot saw him go for a ball that he misjudged. He had the ball in his hands but could not hold onto it. It agonizingly crawled over the line. It was Dundalk’s first defeat to the Midlanders in 14 years.

At the end of August Dundalk, who at one stage had a ten-point lead over Waterford, ended up in the play-off spot following a defeat at home to Drogheda United. The lilywhites had found it difficult to fill the vacuum left by the departure of central midfielder Chris Shields to Linfield.

Shields was the linchpin that held this Dundalk side together. The club skipper put in a transfer request and rightfully the club let Chris go. Chris loved the club but as he lived in Bangor now with his own family, it suited him to move.

He got a great send off from the fans. On his final night he walked out of Oriel and headed down the Carrick Road. The firework display on the road was just as spectacular as his departure.

Alessio Abibi had returned to the Dundalk first team after the defeat to Longford. However, when Peter Cherrie got the call up in September it was the first time one could say that the club had the right keeper needed for the run in.

Relegation or Europe?

On September 24th Dundalk climbed back out of the play off zone with a stunning 3-1 win over European chasing Bohemians. Stunning strikes from Sam Stanton and Pat Hoban proved enough to see Dundalk leapfrog back over Waterford again and out of the dreaded play off zone.

It never phased Vinny Perth when asked if Dundalk dropped into that zone what would he do if they ended up there. The courage and fight in Vinny’s eyes were there for all to see and his answer was the same every time when he said they would deal with it if it happened.

Even while down near the bottom Vinny was insistent Dundalk could make Europe. They very nearly did. He had to cope with the fact that Patrick McEleney had signed a pre contract deal in July with Derry.

Later in the season came the news that Michael Duffy would also be heading to the Brandywell as well. But the win over Bohemians meant it was the first time Dundalk had back-to-back wins in the league for the first time since June.

Peter Cherrie was superb in goals. But the team were also firing on all cylinders. Pat Hoban was top Class. Michael Duffy excelled. Sean Murray was powerful in midfield. New signing Sami Ben Amar was also top class.

Dundalk lost David McMillan and Patrick McEleney for the rest of the season in a bruising game in Derry back in August. But Sam Stanton also stood up when needed and was excellent.

Daniel Cleary came back from a long-term injury and was brilliant. Andy Boyle was top notch also. There were others as well, heroes to a man. But Vinny Perth was also a hero as he steered Dundalk further away from danger.

Wins over Waterford and Longford in Oriel were massive. The return of attendances to full capacity also played a major inspiration for the team.

Roared on by the huge support Dundalk eventually secured safety with a 1-0 win over Drogheda United. A goal five minutes from time saw Dundalk to safety.

The supporters gave their backing to team through protests against Bill Hulsizer. The July protests were held outside the ground as there was no supporter access to Oriel because of Covid.

Vinny Perth’s men were knocked out of the cup semi-final in Inchicore by St Pat’s. They went on to win the cup. Pat’s also beat Dundalk three days after the cup semi-final in the league, severely denting any lingering hopes of Europe. Dundalk’s cup defeat also prevented them from getting to a seventh final in a row.

Stephen O’Donnell

While the team vastly improved on the pitch in mid-October, Peak6 announced they were selling the club. The favourites to take over were a consortium with a lot of money linked to Glentoran in the North.

Vinny Perth appealed for Peak6 to ensure the new owners had a local DNA make up. By the 8th of November it was announced that Andy Connolly and local worldwide billionaire company Stats Sports had taken over the club. The company is owned by Alan Clarke and Sean O’Connor.

Sporting Director Jim Magilton stood down within days. Dundalk finished the season losing to Derry City who finished fourth in the league. But Derry got a place in the Europa League as a result of Pat’s winning the cup.

Vinny Perth’s contract was not renewed by the new owners. To me Perth had done a superb job keeping Dundalk up. I felt very strongly that he should have had his contract renewed. He walked into a club in chaos in June. He guided them to a comfortable mid table place.

But new owners always want their own man and they opted to take former captain Stephen O’Donnell back to the club. The dogs in the streets of Dundalk knew he was coming back days before he guided Pat’s to the cup final triumph.

He was a great capture. The story broke in the Dublin media within 24 hours. Dundalk supporters were rightly overjoyed. Pats as a club were left quite understandably feeling hurt and stunned. But Stephen did nothing wrong nor did Dundalk by signing him up. His contract was up.

Within a week of officially taking over the job he already started to rebuild a good squad. He kept many of last season’s squad that wanted to stay and brought back Robbie Benson. The way the new squad is being put together is vastly different to the chaos of last season.

Stephen is the fifth Dundalk manager in twelve months. Unlike the other four that left or were let go, Stephen has owners that will bring much needed stability.

Two seasons ago Bill Hulsizer even interfered in team selection. I don’t see that happening with the new owners. They along with Stephen will guide Dundalk back to being a major force in Irish soccer again.

But do spare a thought for Vinny Perth. He brought us excitement again with his side battling hard when going on  memorable run in the Europa Conference league.

Who will ever forget the performances against Vitesse Arnhem and the Patrick McEleney goals? After a crazy season we have our club back in local hands. The club once again has a future.

Club Legends Remembered

There were a number of people who had strong connections to the club who passed away last season. Among them was former manager Alan Fox who managed and played in the 1966/67 side that won the league. We also saw Tommy Connolly pass away during the season as well.

Tommy was manager at least three times. He was assistant manager to Turlough O’Connor when the club won the double in 1987/88 and the league title again in 1991. He was also assistant to Dermot Keely when Dundalk won the league jn 1995.

Tommy was also involved in the development of young players right across the town. The death also occurred of the son of former manager Dermot Keely. Alan was only 38. He was the third generation in his family to play league of Ireland Football.

Alan played for a number of clubs in the league but never for Dundalk. But he settled here. His family are here. He was a local postman in Dundalk. Dermot and his family were devastated.

There will be no full attendances at games for quite some time. Dundalk start the season at home to Derry. Can I wish you all a happy and healthy New Year. I also hope you had a peaceful Christmas. Please look after those who are close to you. And remember to be careful out there.

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