Ian Foster grew up living on Dundalk Street in Liverpool. Some things are just meant to be. (Pic: Sportsfile)
Ian Foster grew up living on Dundalk Street in Liverpool. Some things are just meant to be.
Manager of The Lilywhites for two seasons, across 2010 and ’11, almost a decade on he has swapped Hiney Park for the FA’s state-of-the-art St. George’s Park facility and is head coach of England’s U18s, who he will lead for the next three years.
Since leaving Oriel for pastures new, the popular Merseysider has dealt with senior internationals and current Premier League stars like James Maddison, John Fleck and Callum Wilson, while a staff member at Coventry City, before former Sligo Rovers supremo Paul Cook wooed him to Fratton Park as he got his Portsmouth revolution underway.
Foster was a common denominator in both clubs faring well and when the FA came calling, off he went, playing his part in a management team that helped England’s U17s - a side including Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Rhian Brewster and Phil Foden - taste World Cup glory in 2017.
Not bad for a fella who once got a five-minute tour of Dundalk in Des Denning’s BMW in a bid to convince him to succeed Seán Connor as manager.
“Des said, ‘here’s the sights, do you fancy it?’,” Foster tells The Democrat, reflecting on his appointment in the aftermath of keeping lowly Galway United in the Premier Division.
“Once I’d spoken to Des, he was a real football man, I got a really nice feel for what he was trying to build at the football club with Gerry Matthews at the helm. It was too good an opportunity to turn down in a proper football town. It was like a northern (English) town, almost like a home from home for me.
“It was a fantastic experience.”
“I look back on it fondly and there were some fabulous days.”
He began off a clean slate, he recalls, having to build a squad from scratch ahead of the club’s return to Europe after a nine-season exile. The aim was ultimately to avoid relegation, but Foster felt as though there was an expectation to finish higher despite the budget being lower than before.
Yet he relished the challenge, the opportunity to prove himself, even more so given the finance wasn’t there to employ a full-time assistant. He knew Wayne Hatswell from their days together at Kidderminster Harriers and so the then veteran defender joined as a player/coach.
“I loved spending time on the grass, with players, and because of the financial implications at both Galway and Dundalk it enabled me to get on the grass and try to get the best out of the players; I didn’t have the coaching team,” Foster says.
“Sometimes if you look at coaches starting on the pathway, they can get some experience in Ireland at places where results don’t particularly matter, but I was at Dundalk where results are paramount and my brief initially was to keep the club in the Premier Division.
“The financial constraints across the country were quite difficult so when I went in, none of the players’ contracts were staggered, literally all of the players were out of contract, which can be a good and a bad thing.
“It did enable me to mix things up and we did recruit, in that first season, some fabulous footballers, who were a pleasure to work with. When I look back, it was the inability to keep a hold of some of those players…
“If you could have added the likes of (Daniel) Kearns and (Mark) Quigley to the likes of (Faz) Kudozovic, you would have had a hell of a team moving into year two, but it was never a case of that being possible. The players were on one-year contracts and I got that, it’s the way it was.”
Yet The Lilywhites started the 2010 campaign in flying, table-topping form, losing just one of their opening night league matches, though after a mid-season slump, which Foster reckoned was inevitable on the basis of his panel’s depth, and a heavy European exit, the team finished sixth.
Grevenmacher of Luxembourg were conquered on the continent, only for Levski Sofia to hit Dundalk for six in Bulgaria.
“We had a particularly small squad and if you keep going to the well with the same group of players, you’ll find they’ll all fatigue at the same time, suspensions and injuries at the same time.
“We didn’t have the ability to make like-for-like changes so the form was going to dip at some time. Outside of the 12 or 13 first-team players, there were local boys and young kids. Some of them were good players, they just weren’t ready at the time.
“It was a great opportunity for youngsters, your Nathan Murphys, Eoghan Osbornes, Mark Griffins, Jonny Breens, Stephen McDonnells, all these local boys who got opportunities that they maybe wouldn’t have had the squad been stronger.
“It wasn’t down to those players that we weren’t successful, I’m not saying that at all, but it was the reality of the situation: teenage boys playing in the Premier Division and it was difficult for them at times.
“Europe was a fabulous experience for the coaching staff, the players and supporters, but, again, the volume of games and the travel, we just didn’t have the squad depth to play on all fronts.
“I remember coming back from Bulgaria, we played on the Thursday, and playing Shamrock Rovers away on the Sunday. It was lambs to the slaughter, if you like; tough.”
“Neale came to me, he was at the end of his career…”
Two nights at Oriel Park are singled out when the topic of the home following is brought up. The Carrick Road venue can be an intimidating spot when times are good, when Dundalk tails are up.
Rovers and Linfield found that out.
“Two nights stand out for me: Rovers, 5-0, and the night we played Linfield,” Foster adds, without hesitation. “They were special nights where you were really proud to represent Dundalk and you saw what it meant to the local people.
“The two games against Linfield were fabulous, in fact. On Valentine’s Day up in Belfast, we were in pre-season really, Linfield were flying in the middle of their season, but Daniel Kearns’ performance on the night was exceptional, the kid got a hat-trick.
“I remember the flares going off in the stand on the far side and thinking, ‘this is going to cost us…’ It was a proper night for the supporters.”
They won that Windsor Park showdown 5-3 and took out Cliftonville and Glentoran too on the way to the 2011 Setanta Cup final, where Michael O’Neill’s Hoops prevailed comfortably. It was a step too far, Rovers were superior, Foster reckons. Though he still rues the injury-enforced departure of Stephen McDonnell before half-time.
However, it’s another arm-wrestle with the oul enemy that the Liverpudlian’s term will forever be remembered for. Title winners in waiting for 2010, Rovers came down the M1 in full bloom, but were uncompromisingly harvested in front of the television cameras and a heaving Oriel.
The game was but a subplot, though. Neale Fenn was coming back, the former Dundalk fans’ favourite who retired only to sign for The Hoops two days later.
“Neale came to me, he was at the end of his career and he said he’d got one or two opportunities financially and would like to take the money and retire.
“The reasons he gave to me at the time will remain between me and Neale, but I supported him on it and I came under fire a little bit in terms of trusting the player.
“What happened subsequently was that Neale had an offer from Shamrock Rovers, we’d terminated his contract in good faith and ultimately that was the decision Neale made, to join them.
“I think it was a naughty one by Michael O’Neill, but he took advantage of the opportunity he saw. Neale made the decision and whether he regrets it to this day, I don’t know. I’d never dwell on it.”
The issue may well have been on the agenda a matter of weeks back, Foster having met O’Neill at a match involving Manchester City. Their League of Ireland pasts were spoken of.
Water under the bridge it may be, but Fenn’s exit had something of an impact on Dundalk’s dressing room, dropping its age-profile for one. Yet karma has a nasty way of biting you on the backside.
“It had an impact because we lost a really good player. Neale was a smashing guy, he had bags of experience and was someone we could heavily rely on.
“But if my memory is right, we managed to replace him with Tipton. So I lost Neale, but managed to get Matthew, who came in and scored goals. It worked out well for me and Dundalk in terms of Matthew scoring goals and it worked out on that night (against Rovers), with Tippy getting a hat-trick, which was nice.”
“There was a lot of uncertainty at the club around the ownership.”
Mark Quigley, Foster indicates, was his best signing, he and Jason Byrne coming in a package from Bohemians as Dundalk headed into the 2011 programme with an even tighter squad.
“Quigley was a revelation for us, he played as a No10 and was just fabulous; a pleasure to coach and watch. Quigs could have gone and played second tier of English football at that time, I’ve no doubts about that. He could have played Championship in the right team.
“There were questions over Mark’s fitness when I signed him, but if you put on any physical activity, Mark would have been in the top three or four. He was everything you wanted in terms of football ability, a technician, goalscorer, the way he was in the dressing room, a winner and a pleasure to work with. Certainly one of the better signings we made.”
Hatswell had gone back to England at the end of the previous season and was replaced by “a smashing fella” in Darius Kierans, so Foster didn’t necessarily feel his hand was weaker. And the year ran smoothly for a while, arguably up until the Setanta decider, after which off-the-field cracks began the show.
The end became inevitable, albeit there are no hard feelings and Foster, who has returned a few times since, bears no grudges, holding Dundalk and its people in the highest respect. It’s just a case of what might have been.
“There was a lot of uncertainty at the club around the ownership and stuff going on behind the scenes. From my perspective, a long time before the end of the season, my job was obviously to recruit players and try to keep the players I wanted to keep.
“But I’d been unable to do it, the club was unable to commit to contracts and it was very difficult. I think it became clear to both parties that the best thing for us to do was go our separate ways.
“It was amicable. At the time I was dealing with Paul Johnston, who was very good for the football club, and I knew the boys from Fastfix were desperate to take over. It would have been fabulous to work for those two guys - Andy Connolly and Paul Brown - because I knew they had the club at heart.
“It was just unfortunate that the takeover couldn’t have happened sooner because I knew the two guys were football people and desperate for the club to kick-on, and that’s exactly what it did. It’s great that the club got to where it needed to afterwards.”
One of his revisits was on foot of Denning’s sad passing in 2014, while he got to “catch a game” when in Ireland subsequently for a Portsmouth pre-season trip.
Neither party, he insists, can look back with regret at the events of their two-season marriage. Both Foster and Dundalk have gone on to achieve on a bigger and broader scale; success beyond their wildest of dreams.
Some things are just meant to be.