Martin Lawlor and Dermot Keely helped Dundalk FC to form a rock solid defence during the Jim McLaughlin era. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
Loyalty is perhaps the greatest compliment Martin Lawlor can be paid. He left Dundalk FC thrice at its most successful, returning twice, prior to bringing his 17-season association to a halt after the 1995 title victory.
A Lilywhites legend, his feats have stood the test of time and the Dubliner remains a holder of several records. His 400 league appearances are yet to be surpassed, while up until a quintet of the recent-year champions hit the five league winners’ medal haul, he was out on his own in a silverware sense too.
In addition, Lawlor was a top-flight runner-up four times and won the FAI Cup on a joint-best three occasions. Factor in his 30 League of Ireland caps and few displays for the U21 international side and you have a player whose credentials place him among the domestic division’s all-time greats.
The crowning glory, one would imagine, is the 1991 title triumph in Cork. His fourth such victory, he was also the captain. But it isn’t. He’s unwilling to single any particular win out. Even if he did feel it was an ideal time in which to bow out.
“I never regretted leaving because if you analyse most situations, most people will jump off a sinking ship,” Lawlor tells The Democrat.
“I felt at the time that I’d served the football community of Dundalk to the very best of my ability - having been given the honour to be able to. If ever there was a time as an individual to examine new football pastures, that was the time to do it, not in the ’80s when the club struggled fairly significantly.”
He went to Shamrock Rovers and helped to form a miserly defence, but with goalscoring an issue, manager Noel King was replaced by Ray Treacy, who immediately set about culling the panel. Fourteen established professionals were let go over a two-month period, leaving Lawlor with a free passage home, as it were. Turlough O’Connor and Dundalk welcomed him back with open arms.
“You never played for Dundalk for the weekly wage, because it would cost you money travelling up and down. It was just for passion.”
Something abundantly providable.
EL PASO LOGIC
Why stay so long? Seventeen years, during which the bad times were almost fatal, is an incredible duration. But…
“It was my club and I was honoured to pull on that particular jersey every week,” he says, energised. “You went down the town, into the local shops and the bars, even though I didn’t drink, or into the chip shop. You just mingled with the community of people and the cup of tea was always the focal point for me because people knew that I didn’t drink.
“Various supporters over the years continued to evolve into golden people who had the club at heart and stuck by the club during all those lean times.
“Mary McElligott (Mariah) was an absolute golden nugget of a supporter for a long number of years that I was up there. In her hail and hearty days of ‘c’mon Dundalk’ - that battlecry in the stand, for the want of a better description, it was like the Pope or God coming along and saying ‘c’mon Dundalk’. It meant so much to the players.
“But, for me, from the very early part of my time at the club, for this woman to come and say ‘you’re like my son’ and ‘you’ve to promise me that you’re going to carry my coffin at my funeral’. People like her and people who were at the club, like Mickey Fox, you would just sweat blood for people like that.
“The people who ran the club, the Quinns, Enda McGuill. At times when you knew the club was on its knees and people were on their knees, there were difficult times in the late ’70s and ’80s, the supporters, Vincie Cranny - another absolute staunch supporter - they were people who every time you pulled on the jersey, you put your hand on the crest and said, ‘who am I representing today?’
“You went out on the park and you’d no problem getting the adrenaline into your veins. You look at the shed and all those expectant faces, the expectation from the young kids to the fathers who brought their kids. It just made you feel so privileged that people from this community wanted you there, respected you and gave you the opportunity to represent just a phenomenal football community of people.
“Certainly, that’s what helped keep me at the club for 17 or 18 years.”
He adds: “I did have discussions with other clubs at different times, but I used to say I’d give it another ‘pinch’ and always felt that we could do it. My attitude was, ‘if we just did this’ or ‘if we could get one more player’. You always knew finances were tight and the club went through ups and down, which always contributed to just missing out. With four runners-up medals under my belt, we were always there or thereabout.
“But that loyalty to the people I mention, it had already started to become a central reason for me. Mickey Fox, he was absolutely revered and to be welcomed into the famous bootroom under the stairs for a drop of pink tea and a marietta, not everyone was made that welcome, but I certainly was.
“Mickey would have been telling you tales of Mick Millington, ‘Tootsie’ McKeown and Jimmy Hasty. He’d have you spellbound over the cup of pink tea. As a young player, it was a real privilege to go into Mickey and ask all these questions, ‘what was the pitch like when it was the other way?’...
“You got wonderful, character-building stories and Mickey would infuse that historic passion in you for the club. They were the values that I looked for and they resonated with me in Dundalk.”
A flying winger through his Sheriff United and Stella Maris underage days, former Dundalk President Jim Reilly, a friend of Lawlor, attempted to coax him to the club as a 17-year-old. He declined, but The Lilywhites got their man a year later.
Lawlor had left school after his group cert - age 13 - and began working his way up the career ladder, from an officeboy to a sales rep. He was the type of strong character that Jim McLaughlin built his sides on.
And so the latter gave his prodigy (19) a first-team chance in October 1977, only for him to ‘leave’ under a cloud the following summer after a fallout with McLaughlin. He wasn’t picked for an FAI Cup match and felt he knew better. He smiles at his audacity now.
A summer spent playing for Colorado in America could have resulted in an extended stint, but he opted for familiarity and when McLaughlin regained the “quite fast, if a tad dangly” left-footer, he placed him in a back four containing the great Tommy McConville, “a modest young man called Dermot Keely” and Paddy Dunning for a pre-season game. And, as they say, that was that. The partnership set like cement. He was the left-back.
“Jim and Turlough, equally, were two amazing men and they had a great ability to look at people and gauge them,” Lawlor adds. “They would have done their homework as to what type of guys they were and when they decided to go for a player, they were players who didn’t have to be spoken to much about the game; they were respected in their own right and they slotted in to do a particular job.
“They could pick players who would suit the team, but also very importantly, lads who were good off the park; lads who respected the club and particularly lads who respected the supporters, and knew the important role that the supporters played every week.
“We’d no ‘flash in the pan players’. Dundalk always had teams built on solid foundations of people coming to the club and staying. The hardcore group stayed at the club for five or six years and sometimes longer. That’s always been the founding scenario of great Dundalk teams.”
O’Connor, he reckons, doesn’t get the credit he ought to for his reign. Certainly not in the context of McLaughlin or Stephen Kenny. Though he feels ardent Dundalk followers appreciate his achievements equally as much.
“I remember a pre-match talk going into a Cup final, where there were two sheets of paper produced. I’ll not tell you who the manager was.
“Of course, you’re apprehensive about the day, but all the tactical stuff, about how we’re going to play or do this or that, we never had team talks like that, so two pages of instructions, I could see around the room, myself included, lads were like, ‘what is this?’
“He starts off - and you could see the stuff written - by lifting the pages and tearing them up into the smallest shreds. The team talk consisted of, ‘go out, enjoy it and have a great day. I’ll see yis after’. We went out and won the Cup final.”
Dundalk started off the 1991 campaign disastrously, losing 5-0 at home to Shelbourne despite dominating the first half. They’d finish it by winning in Cork to seal the title. It’s a year best told through the actions of one fickle supporter.
“I’m out at the boot of the car, forlorn, tail between my legs,” Lawlor says, looking back. “Beaten 5-0, it wasn’t Dundalk in Martin Lawlor’s head. A lad came up to me: ‘Ah, Lawlor, would ya ever go and f**k off back to Dublin…’
“I was verbally attacked; absolutely battered. I said I was sorry, but it kept coming, brilliant ‘shed’ stuff... He held his season ticket up under my nose and ripped it up under my eyes. He f**ks it at me and it hits my head. ‘That’s what I think of yis. I’ll never set foot in Oriel again’.
“I’m standing in disbelief, but I remember the last thing I said to him, ‘Would you have a little bit of faith?’.
“I got into the car, drove down the lane and never saw nor heard of the famous season ticket man again…
“But we’re on the train coming back from Cork after winning the league. I’m in my jocks - the jersey, togs and socks are after being pulled off me by the supporters. The train is just an asylum of joy from winning in Cork.
“We’re probably about 20 minutes on the train and I get a tap on the shoulder. ‘Well Maaartin. Howya’.
“‘How are ya. I hope you’re happy now,’ says I.
“‘Ah, Jaysus. I’m over the f-in moon,’ he says. ‘Do you recognise me?’
“‘I’m really sorry. You’ll have to forgive me, but I don’t,’ says I.
“He says: ‘Tell me this, do you recognise that?’
“He holds this withered piece of material - it’s yellow and brown. There’s bits and pieces coming out of it. ‘It’s a season ticket,’ he says.
“‘A season ticket?’
“He says: ‘Do you remember a fella came up behind you after the first game of the season against Shels? That was me, Maaaartin,’ he says, ‘I f**ckin love ya’.
“He threw his arms around me. I don’t think he let me go for about 10 minutes.”
Lawlor laughs at the incident almost 30 years on. The lines between faith and fate can be marginal.
Democrat: “Who was the best player you played with?”
Lawlor: “An impossible question to answer…”
But ask any Dundalk fan to select their all-time XI and Lawlor is an ever-present.
One of the best.
A living legend.