Dundalk boss Ian Foster insists his side will take the game to Shamrock Rovers in the Lilywhites’ first outing of the 2011 League of Ireland season on Friday night. Interview by Gavin McLaughlin.
GMCL: Have you been happy with way pre-season has gone?
IF: I’m pleased. It’s a new pre season for me in the sense that I’ve never gone from friendly to competitive games with the way we have with the Setanta Cup. That’s something we’ve had to contend with.
Something we also haven’t had this year was an array of players on trial. I identified the players we wanted early on and the ones I knew about we didn’t have to take on trial.
We’ve used a small panel of players - off the top of my head maybe 24 or 25 - in the nine games we will have played before Friday, which is an awful lot. Of the six who aren’t in the squad, they would have only played around 45 minutes or so. Gareth Whelan was the exception but apart from him we only had Stephen Last, Chris Kerr, Glen Traynor and myself on the pitch. Other than that we’ve used everybody in the squad.
Are you pleased with the amount of game time your players have got?
We work out the minutes they have played and their totals. Everybody has got their fair share. We don’t just use the games willy nilly. We know what they’ve played and what sessions they’ve been in. I would say everybody, with the exception of Stephen Maher, would be at the same level.
You brought the lads back two weeks early for the Setanta Cup. Do you think that will help going into the league campaign?
Only time will tell. We certainly needed to come back early, we seen the benefits of that in Belfast against Linfield. I thought we went into that game a bit light. We had four games before that but unfortunately the opposition we had....we weren’t really tested. Cliftonville put out a reserve team and Newry pulled out. The best game we had was Monaghan, which was competitive and stood us in good stead.
We could have done without the Limerick and Rock Celtic matches but for financial reasons we took both games on. Limerick spent a lot of money coming over here with one of our sponsors and it was important to play them and obviously the Johnny Breen transfer meant we had to play Rock Celtic. Ideally we would have liked to have played that in the middle of the season because it meant we played four games in eight days and thats probably asking a little bit too much for the players at this stage.
Luckily you’ve come through without any real injury problems.
Yes, that’s the most important thing. They’re all fit and raring to go.
You’ve kept 11 from last year’s squad. That consistency from last year should help with things this season.
I think so. When I took the job it was incredibly tough to try and bring in the amount of players we did. It was something that I would hope I would never never have to do again. I had the same situation at Galway so for the first two years as a manager I was trying to sign a squad of players. Its not good for a football club and its not good for myself or the staff at a football club.
You need to have a conveyor belt of players who will be at the club for a while. The problem with that is that we only offer one year deals so its a constant battle to keep your best players. We’ve seen players leave the club. Faz Kuduzovic is a player we would have liked to have kept at the club but his deal ran out and that is the risk you take. I think we have replaced him with a great player in Mark Quigley so we’re pleased with that but you want to keep your best players.
Do you think it’s a better squad that last years?
I think it’s a more settled squad. As you say, we have 11 from last year so they know each other a little better, they know what I expect and they know what way we play. The lads who’ve come in have the same quality, maybe a little bit more, than the lads who have left the club. We’ll see in time whether we’re up to the test but I’m sure we can take it on to the next level.
The likes of Dean Bennett, Daniel Kearns, Simon Madden and Stephen McDonnell have also just had their first pre-season with the club. That should benefit those players.
It seems like those lads have been here forever but I think they’ve only played around 15 games. When you sign players in the July transfer window there’s not an awful lot of the season to go. You’re asking lads who were in pre-season mode in the UK to come straight into mid-season in Ireland. You could see the likes of Bennett and Kearns getting really strong when the season was coming to an end. They were just about to kick on and it was over but they’re ready to go again and even though they’ve only been here for a relatively short period, they know the club inside out.
You mentioned your system. You like to play with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Do you find players to fit that or do you build the system around what you have available?
What I try to do is bring in players who fit my philosophy of the way football should be played. Systems are irrelevant almost, it’s the philosophy that sticks. If your philosophy is to pass it through the thirds of the pitch and play between the lines then it doesn’t really matter what system you play. If you want your team to go from back to front quickly by passing the ball then it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing 4-4-2 or 4-5-1.
We’ll change our shape, depending on what team we are playing. We used 4-3-3 a lot last season. For arguments sake we could use Danny Kearns and Ross Gaynor either side of Jason Byrne and use the likes of Bolger, Ward and Bennett in the centre of midfield. We have the personnel to play attractive football and that’s important.
Your squad has a lot of flexibility in it. You can easily play a number of players in different positions where they would naturally fit in.
When you have a 19 man squad you need that. If you look at Keith Ward, he can play as a number 10, either side of the field or centrally. Mark Quigley played in wide areas for Bohemians. Danny Kearns can play off a striker and either side of the pitch, as can Ross. Dean Bennett has proven he can play centre-back.
Stephen McDonnell could cover at right back and Stephen Maher played there for a season at St Pat’s. We could even stick one of the big centre backs out there. Manchester United played John O’Shea there against Marseille recently. They might not get as much quality going forward but they’ll play and shape the team in a way that allows them to get Patric Evra out wide on the left. We could do that with Hawkins or Hector if we needed to. It’s important to be flexible.
Are you a bit light in attacking options?
Maybe slightly regarding Jason Byrne’s position. With Mark Quigley I think we have players who can play that role but we only really have Jason and Johnny Breen who can lead the line. I’ve been really impressed with Johnny. His work rate and his attitude are excellent. He needs to add goals but against Rock Celtic and against Shamrock Rovers his play with his back to goal was fantastic. He’s learning the game and I’d have no qualms about throwing him in otherwise I would have went and looked for an experienced striker. The likes of Griffin and Breen will get plenty of game time this year.
Last year you could call on the likes of Griffin, Breen and Nathan Murphy to come into the squad. Is there anybody coming through now that can make the step up? Glen Traynor, for example, looks like a good prospect.
These boys will have opportunities, without a shadow of a doubt. The problem we have is that the A-Championship doesn’t start for an awful long time and it is being played over a short period. It means that the boys we don’t see everyday aren’t playing every weekend either. If we call them in they wont be at our level. It’s unfair on us and on them in that situation. I wouldn’t want to hinder their progress by sticking them in to a game where, quality wise, they might be up for it but fitness wise they are a million times off. We don’t have a full time youth set up so the lads who are too old to play for the Under-17s have no games until the A Championship begins which is far from ideal. It should start the same week as the League of Ireland.
Can I ask about your search for central defenders. It took a while but eventually you’ve come up with Colin Hawkins and Shane Guthrie which looks like a monstrous partnership. You’ve also youth in the shape of Michael Hector.
I think Michael will add decent competition to Hawkins and Guthrie. They are all 6ft 3’ plus and all at different stages of their careers. Michael is just starting his career, Shane is probably reaching his prime and Colin has been there and done it. Whatever two we play we will have experience and a bit of youthful exuberance. We’re delighted with the mix. We took our time because we can’t get it wrong. You’ve got to get every position right when money is as tight as it is.
Where you ever worried that you mightn’t get anybody in?
I always had players outside of Ireland lined up. The problem with bringing players in from the UK is the amount of time it takes for them to settle in. Some boys leave home and leave families. It’s a different culture, I know people say it’s only across the water but it is different. You’re better off getting lads who live here and have experience in this league. At the same time you don’t want to pay over the odds and I certainly believe that we haven’t done that. I would argue that we have got very good players on very good money. Hawkins in particular has been a breath of fresh air since he’s arrived. He’s a leader on and off the pitch and we were desperate to get him.
You mention leaders. Have you settled on Simon Madden as your captain for the season?
I think we will certainly start with Maddy. I don’t really pay too much attention to who is captain to be honest but I think it will help him. He is a bit quiet but he leads by example. He is a proper professional in the way he conducts himself. He comes in and his preparation for training is impeccable, never mind for games and he is somebody that the younger lads should aspire to. He might not have won the medals that Colin Hawkins and Jason Byrne have won but he’s a proper player.
It takes something to lead a team out. Not everybody can do it. I spoke to Paul Cook about Gavin Peers who he made captain for two or three games. Peers handed it back and said he didn’t want it. Some players can handle it, some can’t. It doesn’t affect Simon.
Stats can be sometimes misleading but one interesting one from last year is that you picked up 25 points at home and 23 away. Your home form is obviously something you will be looking to improve on.
Absolutely. It wasn’t good enough over the season. We had some great nights here but some disappointing ones as well. We’re pleased with 23 away from home but 25 at Oriel Park is not good enough.
The title was won with 67 points last season which is probably one of the lowest tallies in the European leagues. Do you set a points target for every round?
We do but I’m not going to tell you what it is. We got 18 points in the first round last year and 15 in the last round. You’ve got to be careful with targets because if you don’t reach them how do the players react? I set myself targets but I don’t necessarily tell the players. We’re aware that there are certain home games where we should be picking up maximum points and I don’t think we did that on enough occasions last year.
One major difference from last year is that you won’t have European football and subsequently nine games in 31 days to contend with.
It would be great to have European football but you need the squad to contend with it. Last season we had the same panel of players to deal with it all. The travelling and the heat, especially in Sofia, took an awful lot out of the lads. We were going from League of Ireland to travelling to Europe, travelling home from Europe and straight back into League of Ireland with a small amount of players. It was very tough.
Europe was fantastic. Fantastic for the players, for the fans and financially for the football club. That’s where we all want to be but we weren’t prepared for it as a squad of players. What we would have to do in the future is invest the money from Europe into the squad of players so that we can compete on all fronts.
How far do you think the team might have went in the league if you didn’t have that schedule in July?
Who knows? In the third round of games we got five points which is shocking. I take a lot of responsibility for that but we were going into games where we hadn’t trained. In fact I don’t think we trained for a month. The lads were coming in and we were going through set pieces, shape and patterns but they weren’t training in the real sense. It was game rest, game rest, game rest.
I remember you played Drogheda two days after returning from the CS Grevenmacher game in Luxembourg, the second leg that Thursday and Shamrock Rovers on the Sunday.
The worst was that Rovers game. We didn’t have the players to rotate and we were destroyed. We just couldn’t handle it mentally. Our philosophy is ‘the next game is the most important’ but that’s difficult when your next game arrives every two or three days. The lads who were here last year will have learnt form it and the likes of Quigley, Byrne and Hawkins have experienced it so if we can qualify for Europe in 2012 and keep those lads here we will be much better for it.
That’s a a long term view of things.
Well we need to have that. We need to talk about the long term future of the club and what we want to be doing is competing in Europe.
Shamrock Rovers have added a huge amount of quality to their squad. Can you see anybody else but them as the team to beat?
I think if you finish above them you will win the league. I’m not envious of any other manager but what they are doing is signing young players on the right kind of money. They don’t overspend but they have like for like changes in every position.
The financial benefits of winning the league are massive now. If you don’t qualify for the Champions League you go straight to the Europa League and thats an automatic 90k in prize money. The domestic prize money for winning the league is down but if you were to win one Champions League game, the TV revenue and the crowds that go with that, would pay for your playing budget. Rovers wont be naïve enough to budget for a second round of Champions League prize money but they can budget then for the Europa League because they know where they’re going. They are the benchmark at the minute.
Do you see Sligo Rovers as their nearest challengers? They’ve made some key additions and Paul Cook has retained the bulk of his squad from last season.
Paul’s done a fantastic job. He’s been given an extra bit of cash to finish in the European places this year. They won two cups last season and they play football in the right manner. They had a shocking start to the season last year and I think they finished six or seven points behind Shamrock Rovers. When the transfer window opened I think they were in the bottom three.
They will be a handful. The spine in their team is very strong. Jason McGuinness, Gavin Peers, John Russell, Richie Ryan, Joseph Ndo, Raffaele Cretaro, Matty Blinkhorn, they are fantastic players. Its a tough place to go and I think they will be match for most teams. They’ll certainly have more days on their game than off it.
Ironically, Sporting Fingal were the only team you didn’t beat in the league last season. Now they are gone, do you see Dundalk as part of the next bracket of clubs alongside Derry City, Bohemians and St Patrick’s Athletic?
I think so. Thats certainly where we want to be. Progression is the aim and we want to better what we did the season before. I know we finished a place below in the table last year but we achieved more points than the club did in 2009 which means we were more successful on the pitch. Thats what we’ll be looking to do again.
St Pat’s have lost a few but they’ve replaced them with quality. Derry City are young but they have some great players in the likes of Barry Molloy, Gareth McGlynn, Ruaidhri Higgins, Eamonn Zayed and they have youngsters like McClean and McElearney who are very promising.
Bohs?..........It’s something we’ve become used to in the League of Ireland I suppose. I don’t want to speak about other people’s teams but it does make you raise your eyebrows when you see players with years left on their contracts almost bullied out of a football club only for that club to go and spend more money than what I have got on a new squad.
Budget wise, you’d expect the likes of UCD, Galway United, Bray Wanderers and Drogheda United to make up the rest although Bray certainly caused Dundalk a lot of problems last year.
UCD have lost players but they always bring in quality. They play in a manner which is almost win or bust and they try and win games playing all out attacking football.
Whoever finishes bottom won’t finish with zero points. Whoever finishes ninth you’d imagine will have between 20-30 points. They have to get them from somewhere. The league will be tight and that’s the way it should be. If they had a split like the way they have in Scotland, we wouldn’t have seen the drama that Galway caused at Bohemians near the end of the season.
Speaking of the split, there’s talk that it could be introduced in 2012. What’s your thoughts on it?
I wouldn’t like to see it introduced. Clubs will lose revenue and a season should be played over a full season. The league will be bigger next year and you’re going to have two good clubs from the First Division coming up. Some of those clubs are spending more money than us trying to get to the Premier Division next season. Going back to a 12 team league will make it really strong so I don’t see why a split should come into it.
It’s been slightly different this year because we’ve had the Setanta Cup played before it but are you looking forward now to getting the league season started?
Certainly. Its a long time since October 29 last year when the league finished. It’s a great start for us. They are the champions and if I was sat here as a bookie, I honestly wouldn’t have a clue what to expect. Our record against them last year was fantastic but that won’t matter on Friday. I’ve seen them twice in pre-season, once against Shelbourne and against Waterford. I know what their starting 11 will be but I’m confident we can go there an match them. We’ll go there to win the game.
You’ve won both of your previous opening games. It’d be nice to claim a third on the trot, especially in Tallaght.
I’ve never had a home game for the first game of the season. At Galway we beat St Pat’s 3-0 away and last year we beat Bray 1-0. If somebody offered me a clean sheet and a point now I’d take it but our mentality is to try and win the game.
Have you a message to the fans ahead of the season?
We’ll play to win games. That will be our attitude. Sometimes we will come unstuck because of our offensive play but thats how we want to play football. We want the likes of Quigley, Kearns, Byrne and Gaynor on the ball, doing their stuff in the final third of the pitch so our defenders will have to switch on and be prepared for when it doesn’t come off.
You’ll have no hair come the end of the season!
I know. I was thinking of just getting it shaved off before we start on Friday!