In the latest part of our ‘Before they were famous’ series, STE McGOVERN retraces the often difficult history of this year’s good news story, Dundalk FC.

You’ve probably heard of Dundalk FC by now. Ireland’s most successful provincial football club, and second most successful overall behind Shamrock Rovers, qualified for the group stages of the 2016/17 Europa League, only the second Irish team to ever do so, again following in the footsteps of their Dublin-based rival.

But now the Louth team are cutting out a special place for themselves in the annals of Irish football. On the hunt for a third SSE Airtricity League title in a row, they are considered one of, if not the best team to ever come from the small island. They have already surpassed Rovers in Europe after their dramatic late equaliser against AZ Alkmaar on 15 September to tie the game at 1-1, earning the first point gained by an Irish team in European competition. That was followed up with the first ever win when they beat Maccabi Tel-Aviv 1-0 at Tallaght Stadium on 29 September.

It is the latest chapter in the long and storied history of the Lilywhites. Although the club once suffered a 10-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield in the Fairs Cup in 1969, they retain a respectable record in Europe. Down through the decades they have gotten draws against teams like Tottenham Hotspur, Porto and PSV Eindhoven – the Dutch side would go on to win the UEFA two years after their meeting in 1978 – while nicking the odd victory against sides such as DOS Utrecht, Hajduk Split and, of course, BATE Borisov, who they defeated 3-0 in the third qualifying round of the Champions League at the beginning of August.

Dundalk’s greatest run in Europe, however, came in 1979. That year the champions of the Republic of Ireland were pitted against the champions of Northern Ireland, Linfield FC, in a preliminary round of the European Cup. There are a few things worth noting here: Linfield is a Belfast-based club with Unionist links; Dundalk is a Louth-based club, one of the border counties to the south of the Six Counties, with Republican links; and this moment in time was slap bang in the middle of the Troubles. It was a recipe for complete and utter chaos.

300 Gardai were present at the first leg in Dundalk, but that didn’t stop objects being flung and Tricolours being burnt. 100 people were injured, including 56 Gardai, yet somehow the match wasn’t called off. Dermot Keely, the Dundalk captain at the time, later reflected on that torrid night.

“It was like playing a football match in the middle of a street riot. The match should have been called off. It was crazy. Stones being thrown, cops hauling people off the pitch, all of us avoiding one side of the pitch where the trouble was at its worst. It was a unique and terrifying experience. I still remember the chap shimmying up the flagpole to try to take down the Union Jack, being stoned, falling down, and going back up again.”

The tie finished 1-1, but it was decided that the second leg couldn’t possibly take place in Belfast, and so the fixture was moved to a neutral venue in the form of Haarlem, Netherlands, where Dundalk would win 2-0 and progress to the first round. There they faced Maltese side Hibernians, where a 2-0 home win was enough to see them go through on an aggregate scoreline of 2-1.

Dundalk were in uncharted territory now; Celtic awaited them in the second round. Having put in a valiant effort in Celtic Park, they ultimately lost the first leg 3-2. They couldn’t find the all-important winner in the home leg, although Tommy McConville missed a glorious opportunity late on in the 0-0 draw. Still, it was a tremendous achievement by a League of Ireland team to be amongst the final 16 teams in Europe’s premier club competition and within a whisker of facing Real Madrid.

That European Cup run was perhaps the high point of a golden era for Dundalk. Across the seventies and eighties the club won 19 trophies, five of which were league titles. They would go on to win another two league titles in 1991 and 1995, the latter of which was secured in a dramatic final day finish as they pipped Derry City to top spot by a solitary point. The next season they finished seventh out of twelve teams, as a period of mediocrity set in that would result in relegation in the 1998/99 season after finishing dead last.

Dundalk would return to the Premier Division for the 2001/02 season, but suffered an immediate relegation, which could be partly blamed on poor timing. The league was being reduced to ten teams and as such three teams were relegated rather than just two. In any other season preceding that year their tenth placed finish would have earned them a relegation playoff at least, although they did earn a consolation prize in the form of a shock FAI Cup win.

This time their stay in the second tier of Irish football would last considerably longer in what was one of the darkest periods in Dundalk’s history. They went on their longest run without a win when they couldn’t muster a victory in 19 games across 2002 and 2003. The football was poor and the atmosphere at the club was dire, with crowds dwindling down to the low hundreds. Even when promotion was seemingly attained it was taken away from them.

In November 2006 Dundalk won the annual promotion/relegation play-off to secure a berth in the Premier Division. Or at least they thought they did. Instead, they were bizarrely chosen by an Independent Assessment Group to play in the First Division for the 2007 season, despite beating Waterford United in a play-off. The club argued that they had earned the right play in the top tier, with one official questioning “what was the point of the league taking our players and fans all the way down to Waterford if it counted for nothing?”

To rub salt into the wounds, Galway United, who had finished behind the Louth side in third place, were promoted in their stead. What possible reason could there be for such a decision? Essentially the League of Ireland was about to merge with the FAI ahead of the 2007 season, whereas up until that point it had been an independent organisation, much like the Premier League is separate from the Football League today. In their wisdom, the FAI laid down a new set of criteria — which is set out well in this piece by John Dodge – when deciding who should compete in the top division. To this day no one is really sure why that was the case. The Irish Independent suggested that “self-importance, power mongering and the simple fact that they could, can’t be ruled out.”

The fans, as you can imagine, were none too pleased, while one supporter let his frustrations boil over. Mark Kavanagh, or ‘Maxi’ as he’s more commonly known to League of Ireland fans, entered FAI headquarters in Merrion Square, Dublin on 13 December 2006, dousing himself in petrol and threatening to set himself on fire in protest at the decision. When the Gardai arrived, he quickly surrendered and was “later treated in the city’s Eye and Ear Hospital for irritation to his eyes caused by the petrol,” according to the Independent.

Both Dundalk and Waterford threatened legal action against the association for the promotion debacle, but it never came to pass. Before the year’s end, the Lilywhites’ owner and CEO Gerry Matthews stated he was “happy to move on” and expressed his satisfaction with the process over the selection system, completing a full 180 on the club’s previous stance.

It would be two years before Dundalk would taste sweet promotion, winning the First Division by a point in 2008. The club subsequently had three years of stability, finishing fifth, sixth and seventh in those seasons with almost exactly the same points total on each occasion. 2012 would not be such an easy ride, as the team were mired in a relegation dogfight. They lost to eventual champions Rovers 7-0 and 6-0, the heaviest of several beatings they took that year. To make matters worse, their local rivals Drogheda United had a terrific season as league runners-up.

Luckily for them, Monaghan United withdrew from the league, meaning their results were expunged from the records, but more importantly it also meant there would be no automatic relegation that season. Dundalk finished bottom of the eleven remaining teams and thus had to compete in the promotion/relegation play-off, where they would face old rivals Waterford United over two legs. The first tie in Oriel Park would end 2-2, before Dundalk beat the Blues 2-0 on the south coast, retaining their place in the top flight.

Jim Murphy, a well-known Dundalk fan who has written two books on the club, said in an interview with journalist Dan McDonnell that the 2012 campaign was “appalling”, and even went as far as to say that it was worse than their seven straight years in the First Division. A ‘Save Our Club’ appeal was launched by fans, which included bucket collections and supermarket bag packings.

Alan Connolly and Paul Brown stepped in to take over the club, writing off Dundalk’s debts upon their arrival so as to wipe the slate clean. It would be a fresh start for the once great institution, yet it would take an enormous effort to not just steady the ship, but make it in any way seaworthy again. The two business partners had only one man in mind to steer the project on the football pitch.

Stephen Kenny was one of the most successful managers in the league. He had won trophies with Derry City and Bohemians and his reputation was stellar. Kenny was, however, sacked that season as manager of Shamrock Rovers. Was he past it? Had he reached his own ceiling? Brown didn’t have such doubts, driving for two and a half hours to Donegal in his Mercedes with Connolly in tow to sit down with the man himself and ask him to take the job. They told him they weren’t advertising the job as they weren’t interested in anyone else.

Kenny had to think about it. After losing the Rovers job, which was considered the biggest domestic job in the country at the time, he needed to consider his options carefully. If the next job he took didn’t work out it could be the end of his managerial career.

The role of Dundalk manager would not be an easy task. The club was at a low ebb and the squad, who were all out of contract, needed to be rebuilt entirely. It was also, however, an opportunity to mould a team in his image, something that he found hard to accomplish at Rovers. Having consulted with close friends, he chose to accept the job offer. The rest, as they say, is history.