04 Oct 2022

The Commentary Box: A look back on the life and legacy of the legendary Des Casey

The Commentary Box: A look back on the life and legacy of the legendary Des Casey

Des Casey presenting the goalkeeping award at the 2010 SWAI Awards night. The trophy was commissioned upon his retirement from the FAI and sculpted by a local artist Tanya Nyguard

Recently Dundalk FC lost its President with the passing of Des Casey at the age of 91. To his family, his passing is an irreplaceable loss. To the town of Dundalk and his football club, his passing has left a huge gap that can never be filled.

But Des Casey had a massive and so positive an impact on the lives of so many people, it’s impossible in these few words to even begin to describe.

Des worked in his earlier years with CIE at Dundalk Railway Station. It was so ironic that he began his working life on the railways, as his beloved Dundalk FC became the continuation of the Great Northern Railway team.

GNR was a huge railway company in Dundalk that employed so many. They also set up as a soccer club which would later be renamed Dundalk FC.

Des became a full time official for the independent trade union TSSA, which represented thousands of employees in the Rail, Bus and travel industry in general in Ireland and the UK.

It was as a Union official that Des initially became recognized as a great negotiator, problem solver, a man of principle and a man who would always fight for the good of anybody he represented or the cause of any group he undertook to lead in their battle for justice.

Dessie used his trade union experience so well in his career in soccer. His death sees the passing of one of Irish soccer’s most dedicated official’s and negotiators. His passion for the game was matched by his integrity and respect for football’s rules and structures.

His Story

Dessie established himself on the Dundalk board in the 1960’s. He followed his father PJ Casey who was treasurer of the club from the late 1930’s until his death in 1961.

PJ was one of Dundalk FC’s founders and his field on the Carrick Road became known as Oriel Park when Dundalk moved there on 23rd August 1936.

The club had originally played its football at the Athletic grounds on the Ramparts. Sadly, that venue was to disappear into folklore sometime later. Dundalk were proven right to move to Oriel. Ironically, the day Dessie passed marked the 86th year of Dundalk’s first competitive game at Oriel.

Dessie joined the Dundalk board in the 1960’s following in his Dad’s footsteps. In 1973 he became Dundalk’s representative on the FAI and at League of Ireland meetings. Thus began Dessie’s connection with soccer administration, until he retired in 2002.

Dessie became president of the FAI in 1984. He was the man who was instrumental in bringing Jack Charlton in as manager of the Republic of Ireland. That was in February 1986.Some on the board wanted former Liverpool manager Bob Paisley. But Des got his way and got Big Jack in as boss.

Thus started a romance in Irish soccer as it went through its most successful time in its history.

Des served as senior Vice-President of UEFA between 2000 and 2002. He was the most senior official to emerge from the FAI at international level.

His work within the game earned him worldwide respect. His stock went through the roof when he retired from UEFA and the FAI in 2002. He was determined to stick by a retirement rule he and another soccer great, Doctor Tony O’Neill, introduced in 1991, that all officials retire by aged 70.

The rule applied only to those elected after 1991. Casey thus did not have to go. He was adamant that when he reached 70 it was time to go. Most FAI officials who joined before 1991 kept their jobs. Dessie said he went as he wanted to encourage younger people into the FAI and UEFA.

In April 2002 having reached the age of 70, Dessie did not seek re-election as Vice President of UEFA. A week later he read out the minutes for the last time, as he stepped down as hon sec of the FAI.

Dessie recalled the highlight of his presidency of the FAI, that being the appointment of Jack Charlton as Irish manager.

Dessie was also involved with UEFA’s youth committee in the mid 1990’s. It was then he became the first Irishman to be elected to the UEFA executive committee.

He built up a strong political base among countries afraid of the big powers within UEFA. His most remarkable moment as key player in UEFA politics was not his election as Vice President of UEFA.

Des said his proudest moment was in 1998 when as chairman of UEFA’s youth committee he ended up presenting the European Under 16 and under 18 trophies to Sean Byrne and Barry Quinn for Ireland.

This was the first time any one nation had won both titles in the same year. He could not see it happening again.

UEFA did appoint Des as one of their seven disciplinary inspectors. He was also on a steering committee for Ireland and Scotland’s Euro bid for 2008. It was unsuccessful.

Growing up in Dundalk, Des was a promising goalkeeper, but never realized his ambition of playing first team football. As a football legislator for 40 years, Des Casey fulfilled his early promise and proved beyond doubt he was one of the safest hands in Irish soccer.

Gerry McDermott

Gerry McDermott is a widely respected former journalist from Dundalk. Gerry was at one time a reporter with the Irish Press, The Irish Daily Star, The Irish Independent and media officer with the FAI.

He was also President of the Irish Soccer Writers Association. Gerry told me that Des Casey was one of the people who contributed so much to the whole Dundalk Football story over the past 60 years.

He says the Casey family remain synonymous with that Dundalk story. Gerry says it is the end of an era and that nobody can doubt the contribution to soccer locally, but also nationally and internationally.

Gerry was keen to point out that Des was the first Irish person to be appointed onto the senior Executive of UEFA. He says Dessie was recognized across the world as being a top-class football administrator.

Describing him as a man of integrity Gerry says Dessie was trusted so much at the top table of European soccer.

Gerry says he plied his trade as a football administrator before moving to the FAI, just as Enda McGuill and Jim Malone did before they too moved onto the FAI. McDermott points out that the talent at board room level in the 1960’s was so good, that it was a rich learning ground for Dessie.

He also added that Dessie’s day job as a full time union official would have been a great help as far as problem solving, mediation and trust building within the corridors of power in the FAI.

McDermott stressed that Dessie always treated people with respect. He says people always spoke of the integrity of Des Casey.

The highly respected reporter added that Dessie will always be remembered for his role in bringing Jack Charlton to Ireland as senior team manager. It was Dessie’s single biggest achievement.

It was seen as a massive gamble bringing Charlton in. He was the first non-Irish person to become senior manager. The gamble worked. The rest is history.

Casey’s Legacy

A moment that stood out when McDermot thinks about Dessie career was the fact he retired from the FAI and UEFA once he reached the age of 70. He could have remained on as the retirement rule only applied to those brought in after 1991. Des did not have to retire but he choose to do so.

The FAI wanted to honour Des on his retirement with a huge present and a magnificent ceremony. Gerry remembers Dessie refusing anything.

He told the FAI that should they wish to do something to honour him, he wanted them to commission a special trophy based on Packie Bonner’s penalty save in the shoot out in the World Cup in Italia 90 which got Ireland to the last eight.

The sculpture was designed by local woman Tanya Nygard. I know Tanya myself. She is from Blackrock and has a magnificent talent.

Gerry McDermott was president of the Irish Soccer Writers Association at the time. Des approached Gerry and gave him the trophy and wanted him to ensure his group presented it to the top League of Ireland goalkeeper of the year at their annual awards. That has been happening ever since.

He has a picture at his home of Des presenting the trophy to him and Packie Bonner outside the then FAI headquarters in Merrion Square, Dublin. It’s one of his most prized possessions.

Gerry exclaimed the trophy has been presented for the past 20 years at the Soccer Writers Awards. It ensures his legacy will live on. He says by getting the trophy commissioned, it showed how much Dessie wanted to put something back into the world of soccer.

He went on to reveal that Dessie played as a reserve keeper with Dundalk. He never made the first team. Dessie was always on the lookout for talented keepers.

Casey was made Honory President of Dundalk when the then President Jim Reilly passed away. It was a great recognition for a man who gave so much to Dundalk FC. Dessie took great pride in becoming president.

Dessie and the Casey family have always kept a good eye on the owners of Dundalk FC, in terms of how they looked after the club. Their ownership of Oriel would ensure no owner could ever sell off the Home of football and that Dundalk would never be without their own ground.

Dessie always kept a close eye on the people who had the club in their possession.  As the owner of Oriel, he ensured that when Dundalk’s ownership was passed on to new owners the baton of the club was passed on safely.

By Des and his family owning Oriel it ensured houses could never be built there. Previous owners have criticized the fact the ground was leased. I have looked into the eyes of a couple of these owners and said the Casey ownership of Oriel guaranteed the club’s future.

The present owners of the club renamed Oriel last Tuesday as Casey’s field. It was a magnificent gesture. Dessie’s family were bowled over.

Malone and Casey Connections

I knew Dessie from my younger days as a student, right up to recently. As a young student in the 1980’s, I would get a lift home every Friday with my Da Jim Malone from the FAI headquarters in Merrion Square.

It’s amazing to think the then leaders of Irish football were sitting in a big room discussing the future of Irish soccer, while I sat outside in a cold corridor waiting for it to break up.

My Da was Dundalk’s rep on the FAI. Every Friday my Da would drive me home with Des in the front and me in the back of the car. It was never a dull journey. The two men were very close friends.

When my dad passed in 1996 Dessie wrote a very touching Obituary in the Irish Time in memory of my late Dad. It left me in tears. He rang me from abroad the morning my Da died.

Dessie was very upset. His call meant so much. In 2018 he presented the annual Jim Malone trophy to Dundalk in their annual pre-season warm up game with Drogheda.

At Dessie’s wake, I was reminded by the Casey family at the amount of times Dessie was visited by my late Dad at his home on the Carrick Road. 

Have a safe week and please be careful out there.

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