Dundalk FC captain Brian Gartland with his wife, Bronagh, his son, Bobbie, and the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division trophy last October. (Pic: Sportsfile)
Where do you think your career was headed before Stephen Kenny asked you to sign?
I was going to sign for Shelbourne or Drogheda, two clubs that had drastically different futures to Dundalk at the time.
What clubs had you played for?
Bray Wanderers, Shelbourne, Monaghan and Portadown.
How would you compare the standard in the Irish League and League of Ireland?
It was a more physical game. There’s plenty of talent in the Irish league, however, for part-time clubs, football is very much their players’ second job. There is much more professionalism in the League of Ireland.
Could you have envisaged your time at Oriel Park being as good as it has proven to be?
I signed here because of that glimmer of hope, of silverware and progression in a footballing team. But, realistically, at the time, I’d have to say ‘no’. I was looking at winning a league, an FAI Cup and showing I was good enough to play on a title-winning team here. But, to be honest, no-one knew what was coming. We hope and dream, but reality is often different.
Kenny’s team got a fine start, finishing runners-up to St. Patrick’s in the 2013 league – how important was that?
Very important. It would have been nicer to win, but Pat’s were deserved winners that year. But we learned a lot. We all got a lot of experience and knew then what it took and, more importantly, that we had what it took. We knew we were only going to get better.
Then came the first of five league wins the following season. And it got better after that, the double in 2015 coming on the back of just one defeat. Would you regard this Dundalk team as the best you played on?
The 2015 team was special, the double making the season one to remember. It also made up most of the 2016 team. I would say the 2016 team, for all of its achievements, sets the standard. However, our present squad is the best we have had in terms of quality in depth.
That 2016 Euro campaign was memorable – the highlight for you?
The Alkmaar game away, the first group game. Loved every minute of it. Then we followed it up with a win at home to Tel Aviv. The feelings from those games were immense. The BATE game is probably the stand-out for most, though, a complete performance and dismantling of a club regularly in the Champions League.
How fair was it to ask you to play in a Cup final just three days after an away game in Europe?
It was not ideal, especially after 10 games in September and eight in October. We then had to travel to Russia, and have the Cup final three days later. But that’s the cards we were dealt, so we had to get on with it and do our best. We also had Zenit at home on a Thursday after playing the previous Friday and Monday. So, you could say we were constantly up against it.
And just missing out on the treble last season – that must have been a difficult one?
Very. So close to a clean sweep of trophies, just penalties away from it. But, Cup finals are all about the result. We didn’t perform to our best ability, but still went so close to coming away with a win.
The outstanding feature of your seven seasons so far at Oriel?
The first league title and FAI Cup, the first double. But everything is up there and unforgettable. But to pick one, the European campaign of 2016 – historic.
Were you disappointed to see Stephen Kenny leave?
Naturally, just as I was with any player that has left us over the years. That’s football, though. But, it’s what we are all striving towards, to go to the highest level we can. I was delighted for Stephen.
How big is the test facing him with the national team?
We have lacked an identity, a way of playing (players not knowing what is expected of them and their jobs). There hasn’t been any intensity to our game, until we went behind. So there is a lot of work to be done behind the scenes. It is a big test for any manager. Past managers have talked negatively about our players and at the same time talked up the challenge just to make the task unachievable in the public’s eyes. Targets were set lower for their own benefit.
And what about the new manager’s short time in charge?
Stephen has already changed the narrative, wanting to get supporters dreaming and players believing in their ability. We have a lot more talent in our national team than results and performances have shown, and there is no better manager than Stephen at getting players brimming with confidence and playing to their full ability.
You were mentioned as a target of your former colleague, Stephen O’Donnell, when he took over at St. Patrick’s – was a switch ever on?
Enough people told me I was going! There was never any discussion on it. With my game-time reduced from July until the last month of the season, added to my age, people naturally made presumptions. I had no intentions of moving on – I still feel I have a lot to offer this team and plan to keep fighting for my place.
What about the FAI – can the new regime get the house in order?
I don’t see why not. It will take patience. It will take many years to fix.
And what about this coronavirus-interrupted season – can it be got back on track?
I hope so. There is talk of an 18-game league (we have already played five) from July 31. It is not ideal, having played five games in the last nine months, and then to have no games from October until mid-February. But it is better than nothing, I suppose.
Your lockdown routine?
7:30am: Up early and play with Bobbie (the child); 9/9:30am: Training; 12pm: Home, shower and food. In the afternoons I usually had plenty of work to do for the business. Then there were plenty of jobs around the house (lots of painting!). I tried to always have family time, which was usually a walk with Bronagh and Bobbie. 7:30pm; Dinner followed by either more work or TV.
Have you any ambitions to be a coach?
I always did. I will in some capacity, just not sure if it will be coaching children or getting involved in the pro game.
You haven’t played in Milan’s San Siro – might we see you some day playing at the other San Siro, the name given to Sean O’Mahony’s GFC pitch?
I signed transfer papers from my club in Dublin, Ballyboden St. Enda’s, a few years ago, so I’m ready to be placed in the square as soon as I step aside from soccer.
Were you part of the O’Mahony’s senior championship celebrations?
I was on that bandwagon alright! We went to all the games and loved the celebrations (many a night in Clarke’s!). It was a brilliant journey and massive achievement for the “WEE” club.
You’ve surely heard a lot about it since, with your brother-in-law John O’Brien having played in it – what was your view of the 2010 Leinster final at the time?
I remember watching it. Never should have been a goal. I’d have been distraught if I was a Louth man.
Did you play Gaelic as a youngster?
Played as many sports as I could. Gaelic, basketball, hurling, Olympic handball, even roller hockey for a couple of years… whatever was happening I wanted to play. Basketball and Gaelic were my main sports along with soccer.
What would be your favourite game other than soccer?
Basketball, probably just edges it over Gaelic.
And the heroes from other sports?
Obviously Jordan, and the Bulls were the be-all back then. But I loved Reggie Miller. In Gaelic, Jason Sherlock was the one.
The toughest you’ve faced in the League of Ireland?
Christy Fagan was when he was in his prime. Mark O’Sullivan, the toughest in terms of physicality.
Best league pitch?
Used to love Turner’s Cross, but the last few years it has been cutting up a bit. Now it’s Tallaght (when it’s not windy!).
World event you’d love to attend?
World Cup final, Champions League final and Superbowl.
Are you a reader?
Not too much, but I’ve read Jim Stynes’ My Journey, and would recommend it.
What about the telly?
When I can, love to switch off with a film or series.
Advice to a youngster?
Don’t let fear of failure stop you from trying. And when you do fail at something (we all do), you learn. Don’t let it put you off trying again. Work hard and never give up hope!
Name four you would invite to a celebration dinner?
Celebration the key thing here: Jurgen Klopp, as he’s in the mood for celebrating; Sophia Vergara, for being herself; Luke Kelly or Christy Moore, for a few tunes and pints; Paul Whelan, because a lunchtime coffee can end up in me arriving home the next day!