Gerry Spain with his sons, Luke and James, after the 2016 title win. (Pic: Ciarán Culligan)
Behind every success story is selfless individuals. Some appear distinctly on the face of it, like poster boys or marketing tools, while others just fade into the background, content in the knowledge of the part they play.
At the end of nearly an hour of conversation, Gerry Spain was forthright with his thanks for the call. "It's been over a year since I've left," he said, implying that he may have become the forgotten man of Stephen Kenny's reign at Dundalk FC.
Not so. While Kenny and coach Vinny Perth are perceived as the men at the coalface, manning the touchline and rallying the troops, Spain was perhaps the manager's 'left-hand man' if Perth was to his right.
Titled as the club's assistant manager during his four-years, the manner of his departure was most fitting. He slipped away in January 2017 with little fuss, departing the way he had come in and carried himself throughout his involvement, quietly.
The decision to step away was one which he made with his family in mind and, while he didn't say so himself, it's a decision he seems content with.
"I was exhausted and wrecked at Christmas (2016) and I just decided. Anything that I do, I have to do 100% and give it my best shot, but I knew that I was out, I couldn't do it again with the three and fours hours sleep and the Friday nights. I needed to recharge and then to spend time with the kids because they were growing up fast. I just met Stephen in early January and told him. I think he was a little bit surprised and shocked at the time, but he accepted it," he says.
His departure came at a time where several high-profile players had also decided to move on. Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan had penned deals with Preston North End, while Ronan Finn returned to Shamrock Rovers. He laughs when it's put to him that he was a loss equal to the three aforementioned players, referring to a conversation that he had with Perth shortly after departing.
"As I said to Vinny, we're all easily replaceable and anybody who thinks they aren't is living in cuckoo-land. We ended on good terms and I've been in as often as I can to the games."
It was somewhat fitting that the end of his time working alongside Kenny came to an end with a face-to-face meeting considering that was how the relationship started. When Kenny was named Dundalk manager, Spain got a tip-off from an acquaintance in Derry that the Dubliner might be calling. To offer what, he didn't know.
Spain had been out of football for almost seven years
He recalls Kenny's phone call, their first meeting and the general things they discussed. Budget-wise, things were tight, but this mattered little to Spain who was happy to get back involved.
"We were driving back, we had gone away for a couple of days, myself, my wife and the kids, and we were driving back from Athlone and I got a phone call from Stephen to say that he'd like to meet. I actually met him that night if I recall and it just went from there.
"I wasn't in the game at the time so there wasn't too much bargaining really and, to be fair to Stephen, his hands were tied at the time with what was on offer (finance-wise) because as everybody knows, he was starting from scratch. The club had just been taken over by Andy (Connolly) and Paul (Brown) so everybody was starting pretty much from scratch.
"It was something that I'd never been involved in, but it ticked all the boxes really."
The Crazy Gang
As alluded to previously, most of Spain's coaching involvement beforehand involved working with juvenile set-ups.
Aged 18, he was offered a football scholarship from the Marist College to UCD alongside Ciarán Kavanagh - who would later play with Dundalk - and Ultan McCabe. Also on the table at that time was the opportunity to study PE at St. Mary's University, Twickenham. Ultimately, the Ravensdale-native took the latter route and headed for London where he would spend four years studying.
It was during this time that he began doing his coaching badges, earning a position with Wimbledon as a community coach.
He spent six years with 'the crazy gang' and crazy they
Gerry looked to be set-up in London at the time having married. However, after the birth of their first child, they moved back to his homeland in 2007, back to Ravensdale.
Having returned, his involvement in football was minimal until Kenny's call. Things quickly gathered pace, however, even if Spain's superior did question some of his early scouting reports. The fact that Gerry had no preconceived ideas on opposition players allowed him to analyse critically and this took Kenny some time to appreciate.
"I didn't know a lot about the League of Ireland or about the players and Stephen commented later down the line that he was a little bit worried about some of my early reports on well-established players at other clubs. I would have been maybe a little bit more critical and he would have questioned my reports early on. But he acknowledged a little bit further down the line that because I'd no preconceived ideas about players, that it may have been better that way."
His role, particularly in the early days, rarely entailed coaching the team. Instead, that was left to Kenny and Perth while Spain focused on analysing the opposition. This changed slightly over time as Kenny "trusted" him more, but his brief largely saw him on the road or up until the early hours.
And, as times became more and more successful, the workload increased. His role as a teacher afforded him the summer months off, however, there was little let-up in the schedule.
"I think in the last year, there was something like five days in the month where I wasn't involved with the football side of it and you were talking about three or four hours sleep some nights, and a Friday night would involve leaving work and driving to Cork or Galway or Wexford or wherever.
"As a family, there was great sacrifices involved and my wife had to put up with me not being around, but then for those nights and winning the title and the memories, they're things the kids will have with them forever.
"Obviously, it was a great experience at the same time, especially during the last year with the European run. I don't remember anyone saying that we were going to qualify for the group stages. The targets were more like, 'looking to next year, we're going to retain the title'. But you're trying to take it to the next level year-on-year and that's a testament to the players that they were able to achieve that.
"I got experiences that I never thought I'd have. Obviously, you set yourself goals and targets, but Director of Youth was probably the height of my targets. I never imagined that I'd be involved with a league winning senior side who are playing European football. What happened went well above my wildest dreams."
On this, he
"The workload on everybody increased. It was a big commitment, even to people like Ailish (Kelly) in the office. At other clubs, there was maybe 10 people like Ailish, whereas she was trying to juggle answering calls with people coming into the office looking for tickets, etc. We all had to row in, but we had a great staff.
"All the staff worked extremely hard. Graham Byrne, I was reading there about Conor Clifford and all the fitness work he's done and he said Dundalk was the hardest he's ever done. I think that showed when Richie Towell went over the Brighton too, I think he got the second-best score in the bleep test. That was against full-time professionals.
"Noel Walsh, I suppose his term is the '
"Then, I guess the beauty of the staff and I know from my time in England where everyone was looking at other people's jobs and trying to get up the ladder, I think the staff we had at Dundalk, everybody was happy in their own capacity. I wasn't looking for Vinny's job or Vinny wasn't looking for Stephen's job. Everyone was just happy to be in the jigsaw as such."
The memories he gathered from his four years is something that he'll never forget. He's grateful for them and of how his own kids were able to witness the success first hand. They were in the celebrant dressing rooms on the nights league titles were won, mingling with the players whom Gerry is highly complimentary of, not just for their footballing talents, but for their human qualities as well.
"It's the character of the players, Stephen finds good footballers, but good people as well."
However, one player, one character stands out.
"I think a lot of people acknowledge Stephen O'Donnell as a player, but I don't think people see what he does behind the scenes in terms of pulling the dressing room together and driving everybody forward, having a word with somebody, etc.
"He's a real driving figure. He's had a successful career as a player and I can only see him having a successful career as a manager or a coach further down the line."
When asked to go in-depth on Kenny and of how he is so successful, Spain considered his response, as if assessing how you go about describing the local Julius Caesar.
"I think it's his drive. He's just always driving and driving and he drives the staff that way too and that drives the players. It's just a steam engine where everybody is firing coal in. It's relentless and that's the way he operates," he said in a cluster.
"You just have to look at what he's won and achieved. He's never happy about one thing. I think Roy Keane said that when he won something, he just moved on to the next thing and I think that's the way Stephen is too. He's just one of that calibre of people who are always looking for the next hurdle or the next challenge.
"Then, his man-management is second to none. You hear people talking about managers and hair-dryer treatments and throwing teacups, but I never experienced that (with Stephen). He was always positive in the dressing room and, obviously, there are times when players don't do as they should and he points it out to them, but it's always done in a respectful manner. He treats the players well and he speaks to them.
"But also his analysis and the way he retains the information is just absolutely remarkable. I'm sure now if you asked him about Pat Hoban's 20 goals in 2014, he'd probably be able to describe each one of them. The way he can retain information is unbelievable.
"As I always say to people, 'I'm not a brilliant coach, I'm a brilliant thief'. I just take stuff and tips from other coaches and I definitely took things from Stephen. The success he's had is just remarkable, not just at Dundalk but at Derry and Bohemians, and I'm sure that with the squad he's got at the moment, there's going to be even more success down the line."
While Spain admits the highs heavily outweighed the negatives, there were occasions when his role saw him miss out on some of the era's highlights. Take the 2015 title victory at Tallaght Stadium for example. As the Dundalk players celebrated with the raucous travelling contingent, Spain was refuelling his car at a filling station in Galway having watched the Tribesmen - the Lilywhites' next opponents - go down 3-1 to Limerick.
However, along with the trophy-ridden times, there was some general fun and craic involved too, like how Seán Gannon had to wear one of Spain's "stylish" shirts to the PFAI awards one year having failed to score throughout the season.
He keeps in contact with some of the players who were at the club during his spell and, rightly so, he's able to take pleasure at the part he played in such a dramatic success story.
While hopeful of a return to football at some stage, he has made the decision that it will be in a coaching capacity as opposed to an analytical one.
At the beginning of our chat, I asked him had he ever been noticed as being 'Dundalk's spy' at a game. The answer
"I would just go in my own clothes, keep my head down and get on with it. Nobody would know me."
That line is significant as it sums up his time with the club. He was the silent, 007-like operative in the background, but somebody who played a vital part in Dundalk exercising their licence to thrill.
"It's something that I'm very proud to have been involved with and, I guess as a father, it's nice that my boys have enjoyed wonderful experiences.
"Stephen gave me a ring, I took his offer and we had four magical years together..."