Home Football MacKenna On Monday: After Much Promise, Dundalk Left With No True Ambition

MacKenna On Monday: After Much Promise, Dundalk Left With No True Ambition

Friday passed by without much reflection.

Probably because of what has been, rather than what might have been.

It was three years to the day since Dundalk took apart BATE Borisov in the Champions League qualifiers, advancing the side to the play-off round and deeper into the heart of big-time football than any Irish club had arguably ever been.

Of course, it didn’t end there.

Stephen Kenny celebrates after Dundalk’s win over BATE Borisov in 2016

Come their debut in the group stages of the Europa League they went to the Netherlands and drew with AZ Alkmaar – a club with 100 staff of whom 67 were directly involved in football, and who had a playing budget of €25m a year. Next up they came back and beat Maccabi Tel Aviv with goalscorer Ciarán Kilduff talking later that week about the relief of playing into the winter because, while a €500-a-week contract was good, it usually only lasted 36 weeks.

It may have been giving into a modern view of football, by throwing away the obvious romance and replacing it with the cold finance, but with four matches to go in the round-robin an incredible stat popped up. In three hours of Europa League group football, Dundalk had earned €3.08m. That was the equivalent in prize money of winning every League of Ireland for the next 28 years. By the time they were done the income was closer to €7m.

In terms of our domestic game, they were rich.

What should have been impossible opened up all sorts of possibilities.

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Dundalk fans celebrate Ciaran Kilduff’s goal against AZ Alkmaar in 2016

Had an Irish team finally broken down some giant barrier and could they now go on to be the sort of side that Borisov and other dominant forces from small countries had become?

Three years gone. What might have been rather than what has been.

Watching Dundalk get a fair old pasting in Azerbaijan last week, I threw out the question to social media about their new billionaire owners and if they’d invested anything as there was no real sign of progress.

It wasn’t just based on a 3-0 defeat to Qarabag for there is no shame in that against a side of relatively serious operators with a serious owner, but it was also based on the huffing and puffing and a failure to blow down a house against Riga in the previous round.

Dundalk’s Jamie McGrath dejected after the loss to Qarabag

That was the sort of club that Dundalk should be looking in the mirror at by now if all had gone to plan.

Or if there was a plan.

The replies to that query about their new owners, while drawing endless ire, provided no answers.

Shovel out. Digging time. Beneath the surface always throws up surprises.

* * *

It’s 20 months now since the Peak6 investment group officially came on board and took charge of Dundalk, with many in domestic football believing that this would be a game-changer.

It’s 19 months since they held a meeting with local stakeholders and it should have been a give-away that it wouldn’t be a game-changer.

For instance, they revealed there were no aims to upgrade or replace Oriel Park as, for all the talk of them being in it for the long haul, this would have been an action far above such cheap words. The previous owners had three sets of architects’ drawings done around such a project but from the American investment group, there was absolutely nothing.

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Oriel Park

For those unaware of the Peak6, here’s an insight. They are said at last count to have about 4,300 investments worth a total of €16bn globally. Given their scale and where they come from, you won’t be surprised to find that they describe themselves with the usual corporate dirge. “Always looking for ways to deliver untapped, exceptional value to the market,” is how put their mission. Always be wary though for such entities often look for a way to take money out rather than to put it back in.

Sceptics would rightly say that the only reason they’d care about a League of Ireland club is a return.

Oriel Park may not be most vital in building a behemoth but it is a microcosm of ambition and of spin. For instance, they’ve managed to change the narrative around the stadium to why the FAI won’t put their weight and finances behind it, and why the local authorities sit idly by. That’s a storyline that’s begun to be swallowed and that’s been their real success.

A campaign of pointing figures rather than any doing.

Sources spoken to point to how Peak6 went about buying the County Louth side. With Dundalk’s coffers after those European journeys overflowing, they came along and offered then owners Andy Connolly and Paul Brown roughly half a million each. But it wasn’t just the club they were buying, but also those coffers. And the million buy-out would come from those coffers. Essentially they’d used Dundalk’s money to buy Dundalk for themselves.

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Oriel Park

That’s quite a trick to pull as suddenly they got a side with the potential to make small returns through Europe.

While there’s been a correct highlighting of much-needed facilities such as a training centre, video analysis room and so on, of kitman Noel Walsh being made full-time as if a measure of a more serious set-up, of that trip to Baku last week as they chartered a plane and stayed in the Hilton thus giving themselves the best chance of progressing at every turn, this hasn’t been Peak6 money either. It’s been them getting credit for spending the club’s own cash.

It’s been selective also.

In previous years when Dundalk went to Europe, the club has paid a little short of €1,000 locally to put up bunting and flags around the town. It’s a small gesture but the sort that reminds of a pride of place and reminds of how much they are achieving.

This year the new owners refused as much, stating that local businesses should be the ones forking out. This from an ownership group who have chairman Mike Treacy fly from Chicago and more recently LA to check on his investment and who have Andy Burton over from the UK and put up in Ballymascanlon House Hotel – the most exclusive in that area – on his visits to work.

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Dundalk Depart For Baku Ahead Of Champions League Qualifier vs Qarabag

“Burning through money,” says one source. “And that money is Dundalk’s, not theirs.”

The key question is what happens when that money runs out?

* * *

The rise from the ashes of Dundalk football club is one of the best in Irish sport.

Stuck in the First Division for seven straight seasons up to 2009, in 2006 they were stripped of promotion due to eligibility criteria so supporter Maxi McAllister wandered into the FAI, poured petrol everywhere and threatened to burn the place to the ground.

Meanwhile back in the town, everywhere was the sort of tales that cause some to snigger at the domestic game.

Supermarket bag packing was a source of revenue. Jerseys weren’t available until months into a campaign. The match-day sponsor deal was a free bar for 15 to 20 guests, resulting in a net loss with drinking topping donations. By 2012 the squad saw a ban placed on the club from using the facilities in a local gym. With floodlights turned off immediately after matches the team did warm-downs in the dark. Indeed, players were begging businesses as a local shop made a big deal of their donating a slab of Lucozade.

From there to here is some journey.

It’s just that here doesn’t feel like the ultimate destination.

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There has been some attempts to take it to the next level and being an Irish side doesn’t make it easy. One person talks of Burton, formerly of Sky Sports, being hugely well imbursed in his role in player recruitment but there’ve been brick walls all over.

Simon Cox was a target, David Nugent was a target, but all they managed the last window was Andy Boyle who while an Irish international already had a connection to the club as a former player there.

A source talks of how new CEO Mark Devlin, in the role only months has become a tad disillusioned with the place as well. Previously at Brentford where he was involved in their own building of a new stadium, there was no such plans here and no real commercial objectives.

You’ve to go back to 2012 for a fundraiser, an era when the club was on its knees, there hasn’t been a player of the year night in an age, or so much as a table quiz, or golf classic.

“That may sound small-time,”  the source adds, “but that’s easily said when you are spending money that was there when you bought the club and this club better than most knows you need to make hay when the sun shines as it can turn to rain very quickly.”

At that meeting in February of 2018, there was one oft-overlooked but telling nugget. Jordan Gardner, an investor in the side, said the aim was to win the league every year, and if not to at least qualify for Europe, get through a round or two, and make the money. It means this year has already been a success and with Slovan Bratislava beatable it could become even more so.

That’s a tragic lack of ambition for a club that not long ago felt like it was going to change football here forever.

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Then again it depends on what the true ambition is.

As Peak6 say on their site: “We’re driven to see solutions others don’t and capitalize on opportunities others miss.”

About Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.