No resolution in sight as Oriel Park lease saga rumbles on

Gavin McLaughlin speaks to Martin Connolly

Martin Connolly

Dundalk FC general manager Martin Connolly. Picture: Ciaran Culligan

Speaking ahead of another big week for Dundalk FC which will see the club host Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League and Derry City in the FAI Cup semi-final, Lilywhites General Manager, Martin Connolly, sat down with Gavin McLaughlin to discuss the club’s run in Europe, its plans for the future and to give an update on the situation regarding the lease of Oriel Park.

GMCL: Martin, can you tell us what sort of prize money the club have accumulated so far?

MC: At the moment we are looking at €5.7 million in winnings plus €120,000 for our draw in Alkmaar last week.

GMCL: Offset against that, what are the costs of competing in the Champions League and the Europa League this season?

MC: The costs are astronomical but we are playing at the top table now which means costs are going to be higher.

We’ve had four charter flights already, three getting to the group stages and then one to Holland last week and we still have to go to Russia and Israel which are the big two and the most expensive. On top of that we’ve had severe accommodation costs as, due to the distance, a couple have been two-night stays.

We’ve also got tax implications to deal with and it’s also been well documented that we’ve agreed bonuses with the players and staff. We agree a bonus scheme every year, as do every other League of Ireland club. We did ours early and the players are happy with it and we’re happy with it.

Other costs to consider are the games that are held in Tallaght. I think we’ll only have around 3,500 to four thousand tickets to sell for the Maccabi Tel-Aviv game. That will have financial implications as well because there is an awful lot of work to be done to get the ground up to scratch for the Europa league and there is obviously the cost of renting Tallaght so I don’t think we’ll make any money from playing the games up there.

Now, while we don’t want to be making money on it we certainly don’t want to be losing money on it either. Unfortunately, we’re not in a situation where you can make money from home games.

If you look at the game against AZ Alkmaar in Holland, the stadium was fabulous. We were in an area upstairs which was like a five-star hotel whereas the VIP area in Tallaght will be in a marquee out the front!! The difference in the standards and quality is crazy.

I don’t think people are aware of just how tight it was for us earlier in the season, even before the FH Hafnarfjordur game. I remember speaking to you after it and my feeling was one of relief because financially it was a bit of a burden off us. We’re a League Of Ireland club and that’s how close you are to profit or loss.

GMCL: When those costs are fully added up, how much, in total, will be taken from the prize money?

MC: My honest answer? I don’t know. All these costs are ongoing but I would expect maybe in the region of €3 million but I can’t say that for certain. We really haven’t had that much time to think about it because we’ve been that busy.

GMCL: At the moment, the club has three full time employees. In contrast, AZ Alkmaar have over 160. Is Dundalk FC, with its current structure, equipped to deal and invest this money properly or will you need to enlist some outside help?

MC: I wouldn’t think we’ll need to do that. What we have to try and do is learn by the mistakes of others in the League of Ireland and we are conscious of that.

We’re not prepared to jump into any madcap ideas. We’re run by two businessmen who have run their own successful business and ultimately any financial decisions will be theirs.

You’re not going to see us going out and signing players for a million euro or anything like that. I would hope the money will be spent astutely and we’ll make sure that it’s for the benefit of the future of the football club.

GMCL: I suppose the question that everybody wants to ask is what exactly do the club intend to do with the money?

MC: Again, we honestly haven’t had ten minutes to think about it. It’s been hectic and it’s going to get even busier. We have two live games this week and next week we have the Maccabi Tel Aviv game.

Hopefully, over the next couple of weeks we will have an opportunity to sit down and put in place a short, medium and long-term plan but from a personal point of view, there are a few areas that I would like to look at.

The first is sorting out the lease. That’s the main priority but it’s going to be difficult. The second is talking to Stephen Kenny about how we can maintain this terrific run that we’re on and the third is putting a youth development plan in place for the future.

GMCL: What is the current situation with the lease?

MC: We’ve had discussions with the former owner (Gerry Matthews) which have gone quite well and we’ve discussed something with the council which didn’t go as well.

The problem at this stage seems to be in regards to rates and levies which are owed on the YDC building. We hope that we can work with the council on these but there is still a lot of work to be done on this.

I don’t think it will be easily sorted. I would’ve been confident a few weeks ago that it would but as it has moved forward a bit, I’m not too sure now.

GMCL: Is the council or Gerry Matthews the biggest obstacle?

MC: At this moment in time, I would possibly think that the council is as big an obstacle.

GMCL: The domestic season is nearly over. If nothing is resolved before then, is it safe to say that there will be no redevelopment of Oriel Park over the close season?

MC: The problem we have as a club is that if the former owner still owns the lease, then legally, what work can we do at Oriel Park? It’s not ours.

I’m sure if we got legal advice on this, it would come back saying that we’re going to do work on somebody else’s property. That’s the area we have to go into.

We want to see progress. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing at the moment but, ultimately, we want to secure the future of Dundalk FC, no matter who is in charge, to ensure that something like what happened in 2012 never happens again.

We owe it to ourselves and the supporters that we carry out due diligence in everything that we do. There is absolutely no way that we can commit to changing the pitch, building a new stadium, building a new stand, only to be told, ‘You don’t actually own it.’ There’s no way we can commit to anything like that.

GMCL: You said that trying to maintain this glorious run is also one of the priorities. In terms of players, management etc, are things like 52-week contracts now a possibility?

MC: Not necessarily but that’s one of the discussions that has to take place. We will sit down with Stephen and discuss his vision for the football club and where we can help him on that.

The next thing now is to maintain and repeat our success from this year. We don’t want it to be a one hit wonder and do nothing for the next ten years. We want to try and put something in place where we can maintain it.

GMCL: What have you in mind for youth development?

MC: Again no definite plans at the moment but we would like to sit down with the Dundalk Schoolboys League and the local schoolboy clubs and see if we can work together in the area of youth development or determine if we are better looking to do something ourselves.

The FAI now have a U19 and an U17 League. In the next 12 months they’re saying there’ll be an U15 League, two years after that an U13 League. Do we need to stand on our own two feet and be looking at kids of our own who can go into an U13 team? That’s one of the possibilities.

We want to try and produce a better quality player who comes from the town.

GMCL: That’s long term, but I’m sure you’re aware that people are going to expect things in the short term, like a new stand, a new pitch etc.

MC: And again that comes back to finding a solution to the lease issue and all the legal implications and matters which are ongoing.

We have to carry out due diligence on everything because there are other parties involved. There are legal cases involved which don't involve us and we can’t commit to doing something unless we are assured legally that it’s doable.

I know the people of Dundalk and the supporters want answers but we can’t give them answers because we haven’t got them ourselves.

We are working on it. It’s taking up a lot of time, along with everything else, but there is no real information to give. When we have it, we’ll give it.

GMCL: People have been commenting about the condition of the pitch in recent weeks. Will it still be in place next season?

MC: The experts and the people who maintain it are quite confident we can get a Level One on it next year. They’re not so confident we can get a Level Two which is required for European games.

Are people happy to drive to Tallaght to play our European games? I know that we aren’t as we want our supporters and sponsors to get the benefits of these games being held in Dundalk, I would like to think that everyone would share that same idea, including the council.

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