Gary Rogers and Steve Williams in pre-season. (Pic: Ciarán Culligan)
“I’m angry Tony (O’Donoghue). Even now I can talk about how the club has been treated, what we have gone through and all I can say now is, Stephen Kenny we have won it. Now go back to Scotland and get lost.”
Shelbourne captain Stuart Byrne didn’t hold back following the Drumcondra men’s league success in 2006. Pat Fenlon’s side pipped Kenny’s Derry City to the title on goal difference following a season of financial uncertainty.
Earlier in the season, Shels’ defeat to Bohemians was cast into doubt following the Gypsies’ fielding of an ineligible player. Kenny went on record with the Irish Independent, saying that if Shels were awarded the three-points or a replay that it would be the “biggest scandal in Irish soccer history.” Hence Byrne’s furious comments.
Between the sticks on the Shels team was Steve Williams, a now close ally of Kenny’s. Having played for Dundalk prior to moving to Tolka Park, Williams’ stock was high locally and he was a popular choice when installed as goalkeeping coach.
His speaks highly of Kenny, but does talk of their rivalry in 2006 and Byrne’s comments ever arise?
“No, I don’t think it ever has and if it has, it was aimed at a bit of fun and banter. It’s all in the past,” Williams told the Dundalk Democrat.
“It was a rant from Stuey, who remains one of my closest friends in football. There was a lot of pressure on us that season at Shels because financially, we weren’t getting paid and robbing from Peter to pay Paul in order to make it to training.
“It was probably one of the hardest seasons of our careers. When we look back now, we have a league winners medal in our pockets, but financially and mentally it was very tough and Stuey kind of bottled it all in. We won the league on the last day of the season, we beat Bohs 2-1 and I think Derry won, but it didn’t matter.
“Emotions were flying and his rant was evidently directed towards Stephen over an issue with the Bohs thing, but it’s well in the past now and on the night we really didn’t care. We just got on with it, got our league winners’ medal and moved on,” said Williams.
Winners’ medals are something Williams was used to in his career. He amassed five league championships, however, victory for Shels over Bohs in 2000 remained his sole FAI Cup triumph.
Dundalk are in a similar predicament at present with only the one FAI Cup to their names, in comparison with three league winners’ medals. But as Williams knows, the best teams don’t always win the knockout competitions.
“The sign of champions is when you win the league over the course of a season and the Cup, as Dermot Keely used to say, was a European safety net. If you weren’t in contention for the league, you got to Europe through the Cup,” he said.
“If you get to a Cup final and win a Cup, it’s great, but the champions is what you want to be every year, to win a league is 33 games.
“In a Cup competition, you can get a bit of luck, you can win games where you ride your luck and get to a Cup final and win it. But the league is what you want to win every year.”
Williams was the ‘keeper as Shels completed the double in the 1999/2000 season. It was success which bred further success on the league front with four further Eircom League wins to follow.
The breakthrough win of 99/00 set the ball rolling in many ways for Shels’ unprecedented run of success. Parallels can be drawn between the situations involving the then Irish kingpins and Dundalk now. A double set the wheels in motion.
Kenny led Dundalk to the league and EA Sports Cup in 2014. Success has become a recurring trend since. However, contrary to the common perception, Williams reckons the foundations for The Lilywhites’ relentless success were laid, and belief harvested, in the trophyless, though significant 2013 campaign.
“To win the first trophy is fine,” he said, “but you could see the potential in what the manager was trying to do in the first season here. Possession was key to winning games, not conceding goals or attacking.
“The first season was probably a blueprint of what we needed to do and then obviously the players who were there, the ones who did their jobs stayed and the others who didn’t were let go. Stephen brought his team together and moulded them around certain players.
“The first league winning season was very tight (2014), but I think we stepped on from then and made such good progress in the title wins after that, that we lost a lot of players in the run of it.
“The way the manager came across to me was similar to the way we had it at Shels which was ‘we’re here to win things’, we’re here to be successful’ and it took a while for me to realise what the gaffer (Kenny) was actually saying. But from day one, we shocked everyone with the 0-0 draw with Shamrock Rovers here, I think Peter (Cherrie) saved a penalty. But I think we played them off the park which was great with the squad that was assembled as quick as they were.”
He name checks Cherrie, the man who held the number one slot with Dundalk prior to the arrival of Gary Rogers three-seasons’ ago. Williams admits he and Rogers have a special relationship, a bond which grows stronger as the days go by.
They speak often on the phone. The loneliness of life in goal is often a topic of conversation, as is the ability to accept, before overcoming, criticism.
“It’s a lonely job. Me and Gary spoke this morning (Monday) about it, we chat quite a bit, and we said that it’s a lonely job being a goalkeeper and I suppose with all the ‘keepers I’ve had under my wing the last number of years, I can relate to them, I can see the rights and wrongs and I can help them mentally as well which is a key factor in the game.
“Goalkeeping is probably the hardest position psychologically to work on and I’ve got lots of experience of that. You can’t take criticism personally. I think you should always turn a negative into a positive and get back on the training ground and work on it to rectify it. It’s a game, you have to play it, enjoy it, take criticism and work on it.
“Once you do that, fans and supporters and critics will hopefully turn towards you. That’s how I found it,” said Williams.
Away from Dundalk FC, Williams acts as goalkeeping coach with the Monaghan GAA senior team. His day job involves selling and stocking coffee, and should Dundalk claim their tenth FAI Cup success this weekend, his skills with coffee beans may be promptly requested on Monday morning. There may be a few sore heads…