SSE Airtricity League Premier Division

From Baldonnel misery to Tolka under the sun: John Flanagan sampled highs and lows at Dundalk FC

SSE Airtricity League Premier Division

Caoimhín Reilly


Caoimhín Reilly


From Baldonnel misery to Tolka under the sun: John Flanagan sampled highs and lows at Dundalk FC

It’s 19 years since John Flanagan had to battle through checkpoints in a bid to get to training, his car doused by disinfectant and God only knows what else. (Pic: Sportsfile)

It’s 19 years since John Flanagan had to battle through checkpoints in a bid to get to training, his car doused by disinfectant and God only knows what else. So he can sympathise with what the present Dundalk FC crew are going through, albeit Covid-19 is on a Barcelona level compared to struggling Premier League foot and mouth.

Nonetheless, Martin Murray’s Lilywhites saw their march towards the First Division title disrupted in 2001. The interval which lasted for months in this area festered for only a matter of weeks elsewhere.

Murray’s reign, which scaled both ends of the results-spectrum, can plausibly be told as a tale of two FAI Cup campaigns, the ’01 disaster and the euphoric run of 12 months later.

“I think we could still be there today and we wouldn’t have scored,” Flanagan says of the April 2001 defeat by non-league Portmarnock.

“It was some kick in the arse for players after doing well and having the ambition to go up in the league.”

A third-round tie postponed on multiple prior occasions was settled by Keith Bruen’s goal at an empty Baldonnel, the match going ahead behind closed doors.

“The Dublin lads couldn’t come down and I remember being stopped at checkpoints coming from Drogheda for training,” he adds.

“It was just so disjointed, even with the best of intentions you couldn’t get momentum. I remember the first night travelling up there and they never turned up. I know they had their own issues at the time and then it was continually put off.

“The longer it was put off - we weren’t training together but doing our best to stay in shape - it became like a pre-season game for us in terms of where we were at. For them, they were playing an FAI Cup game against a League of Ireland team; the biggest game in their season.

“I also remember playing a home game at United Park that season and it didn’t go well either. The foot and mouth was a bit of a black period for us that year in a number of ways.”

There was another infamous occasion that spring as club chairman Des Denning was denied entry to a league game against Monaghan United at Gortakeegan. Meanwhile, the away changing room was laced with disinfectant afterwards. No chances were being taken by the Farney men, but, like air through the smallest of pores, Dundalk fans found gaps.

“It was typical of Dundalk back then, there were still a few fans who managed to squeeze in. They couldn’t get the chairman of the club in, but a few fans got in, definitely a couple from Castlebellingham that I know!

“It was a surreal experience. Young people now, with the current outbreak, don’t realise how serious it is. Back then it was just an inconvenience for us. The agricultural sector was in jeopardy, but all we wanted to do was play football.”

However, the severity of the situation became apparent when it came to wage payments. That spell, including the years before and after, was arguably the most unsettled in the club’s history, with ownership regimes coming and going, and cash in short supply.

“We were only young lads and a lot of us were still in college, so even though we were part-time players, we did rely on the finance. Dundalk, now, is probably the best-run club in the country, whereas back then it was a week-to-week thing.

“You went to the Credit Union at times to cash your cheque only to be told, ‘sorry’. I got a letter from Drogheda Credit Union at one stage to tell me not to present any more Dundalk FC cheques.

“That’s the way League of Ireland was. It was nothing to do with people doing their jobs badly, it was just a small league going through a turbulent time. It was tough. I was going through college and it was my only income as such.”

The Cup shock that season sparked Dundalk into gear, Flanagan reckons, as promotion to the top-flight was won. The team’s Premier Division membership would last just one year, however, as the three-team culling of the upper tier saw The Lilywhites go down despite finishing 10th.

Had the Tolka Park hero, Garry Haylock, been there from the start of the campaign, where many matches were lost narrowly, fate may have been kinder to a side brimming with quality.

“We’d Martin and Ollie (Ralph) there, who were fantastic people and you wanted to play for them,” says Flanagan.

“Ollie had the ‘local’ thing going for him, a local hero and I still have an awful lot of time for him. Martin was excellent as well and had great pedigree, and you just really wanted to do well for the lads.

“Over the close-season that year we did sign some very good players to bolster things. We’d a poor enough start and lost a number of close games, I remember, but once we signed Garry Haylock halfway through the season, on form, over the second half of the season, we were in the top two or three.

“Had we got him two weeks earlier it would have been a double success of staying up and winning the Cup. He transformed the whole place.”

As Bohemians, chasing the double, can attest.

“Our build-up was fairly low key and being late meant we didn’t have time to worry. I remember going out on the field and it was roasting. Frank O’Neill (coach) said we didn’t need much of a warm-up, we just had a bit of a kick about to loosen out.

“We went out and Tony O’Connor scored a very good goal (for Bohs), but nobody dropped the head, there was just a real belief that we were still in it. I recall John (Whyte) clattering (Glen Crowe) and I had a job to do on Kevin Hunt, who was probably the best player in the league.

“I was a bit of a spoiler that day and I remember going up and clattering him for a header - it was like, ‘I have this’. Other days you go out and he’d completely outplay you, but I just felt like I was close to him.

“There was just a real belief and on other days, especially after being relegated, when you’d go one down the heads would drop, but this was different and the crowd were fantastic. I think it was two or three to one at Tolka and you just had to do it for them.”

A high point, the highest for some time as Dundalk’s on- and off-field fortunes plummeted over the seasons to follow. Seven campaigns in the First Division, some of which were catastrophic.

Trevor Anderson succeeded Murray after results went south in late 2002, though the former Linfield hero was far from what was required. It wasn’t long before he deemed Flanagan surplus to requirements, the fans’ favourite leaving for Drogheda and on to Athlone before returning to where he belonged, via John Gill.

“Myself and Trevor,” he laughs. “I might have been a little bit too outspoken for Trevor, it just didn’t work.

“For myself, personally, the move away probably helped me develop. Then when I came back with John, John’s a real people’s man and similar to Ollie, someone you wanted to play for.

“As a manager, he’s probably as good a manager as you can get. People might question his coaching, but he was there to manage and he got good people around him. It was the first time I had a psychologist in a dressing room - we’d (Enda) McNulty down - and he just didn’t leave any stone unturned; a really good man to play for.

“I was always made to feel welcome by the fans and I was probably the kind of player they liked - one who wore his heart in his sleeve and gave it everything. If you do that week-in, week-out at Oriel Park, that’s what they want.

“I never wanted to leave, I loved the place, but I had to go. Myself and Trevor didn’t see eye-to-eye, but I always wanted to come back because I felt I’d unfinished business and it was like a second home for me.”

In the third of Gill’s seasons, Flanagan and Aidan Lynch got their hands on the First Division trophy, signalling an end to Dundalk’s stint in the abyss - they haven’t returned in the 12 years since.

But the De La Salle teacher had already committed to retirement by that stage. Injury was a decisive factor and in stating his intention to walk away ahead of the penultimate match of the 2008 season, he got a good send-off in his final home fixture, against Limerick. He walked out holding his son, Derry, that night.

“I spoke to John about it (retirement) during the season, I was crippled by injury, breaking my ankle two or three times that year. I was playing in pain through the year and had two operations. My body was falling to bits, so I didn’t regret it at the time.

“But, looking back, would I have liked to take a year out and gone back? Yes. Not having played full-time, professional football will probably always be a regret. Could I have cut it? Maybe or maybe not, but it’s something I’d have liked the challenge of.

“At the time I think I made the right decision, but looking back… you know yourself.”

What next for an FAI Cup winner with three First Division medals? Nothing, was the answer. Local soccer was of little interest, but GAA? Hardly.

Having built a house with his wife, Sinead, in Castlebellingham, there was a knock on the door one evening, a year or two after he had stepped away from the Oriel limelight. Seamus Cairns, O’Connell’s chairman, had learned of Flanagan’s background in Gaelic football with Newtown Blues.

Democrat: “You won everything but a minor championship medal?”

Flanagan: “Ah, stop. Don’t sicken me. Blues were beaten by a point three years in a row in a minor final and I was involved in two of them. Roche beat us in one of them! But we made a collective decision to go back and win the U21 Championship, which we did.”

He would play senior football for the Newfoundwell side, his last match being the 1999 championship semi-final defeat by Stabannon Parnells.

“That infamous day in Ardee,” he quips.

“It got to the stage where, if you wanted to do it right, you had to make a decision. Play Gaelic and try to play for Louth, or pack it in and try to make a soccer career.

“So I suppose I would be ‘a soccer man that played Gaelic’. I didn’t play Gaelic for 10 or 11 years, hence why I was more heavily involved in the soccer, but I always had a love of GAA. I’d a successful enough underage time with the Blues.”

And there was more silverware to come.

“O’Connell’s are a very small club and they’d a golden generation of young lads coming through - Niall Conlon, Jackie (Agnew), Cian (Doyle) and (Robert) Quigley). We were knocking on the door for a couple of years and that year (2012) I’d actually stopped playing for the first half of the year - I’d gone and done a half-ironman.

“I was still training and when I came back they were in the quarter-final. I ended up playing midfield in the intermediate final (versus Clan na Gael), running after Billy Smith!

“I think O’Connell’s, to be fair, have overachieved in the last seven or eight years, for what they have. They’ve no panel, just a very good cohort of players that the club has relied on since I’ve been there.

“They got to a senior semi-final and quarter-finals in the years to follow and it’s a credit to those eight, nine or 10 lads, the young lads I mentioned with Stuart Reynolds, (Paul) ‘Sid’ McKeever and Jason Carroll.”

As for where his future lies, he’s just completed a two-year term as Aidan Shevlin’s No2 with Louth’s U20s, while he’s involved with both his children’s underage teams. Derry is a more than promising U13 with O’Connell’s, ever- so-comfortable and impressive in possession, while his daughter, Caly, features for Stabannon.

Parnells have even convinced ‘Flano’ - as he’s known by his students - to resume his playing career and so he took part in their recent Kevin Mullen Shield campaign.

“It’s just to play a game of football. Once the body holds up!”

If it does, there may be another chapter to come…