DFC | Connolly says that plans to develop Oriel Park are gathering pace
# General Manager confirms that club looking at going ‘full-time’
Dundalk FC General Manager Martin Connolly spoke to Dundalk Sport’s Gavin McLaughlin on Monday with the redevelopment of Oriel Park, the club’s plans to go ‘full-time’, player contracts and youth development all on the agenda. You can read the full interview below.
GMCL: Martin, there is still the small matter of an FAI Cup final to come but how would you assess the 2017 season? Has it been a healthy year for the club?
MC: Yes. I think if somebody had sat us down at the end of last year and told us we would be second in the league, win the EA Sports Cup and be looking ahead to our third FAI Cup final in a row, we would have taken it.
We knew what was going on at the club at the end of last year. Obviously we lost some players and some of the squad came back to pre-season carrying knocks so it has been a decent year.
Our crowds have been in and around what we anticipated, we have the lease back, we have the YDC building so all in all it’s steady as it goes.
Attendance wise, have you accepted that you’re probably not going to increase the numbers attending games at the minute? If you can’t get 4–5,000 into Oriel with the football that has been on display over the past five years, then surely you’ll never get them?
No, I think there is room for more. I think that comes with better facilities and improvements. We do fall short on family facilities and toilet facilities and we know that. We will try and address that. It’s not a quick process by any means but I think if you improve your facilities overall, attendances will increase.
That leads perfectly into the next question. What are the plans regarding the redevelopment of Oriel Park?
We’ve met architects and surveyors from two different companies and we’re waiting on a third. When that comes back we’ll decide where to go. We hope to put together a design team pretty soon which will put together plans for various improvements and developments to the ground.
As we’ve seen with clubs like BATE Borisov and Rosenberg, it takes year after year of reaching the group stages in Europe before you can really build a proper infrastructure.
Absolutely. Being realistic, for us to just build a new stadium, we would have to be looking to achieve what we achieved last season for the next five or six years.
We’ve said all along that our aim was to make the club stable and put it on a sound footing. I think we’ve achieved that.
Some people will say that we’re almost a year on from the end of last season and things don’t seem to be progressing. What would you say to that?
The first thing we have to do is get things right on the pitch. We’re a football club first and foremost and we have to maintain that. That takes up a lot of our core time.
The whole development of the ground is an ongoing process and we have been doing bits and pieces. We’ve done a five-year strategic plan with the FAI and we also undertook a feasibility study with Collier’s International which took about six months to complete. We also met various council officials to discuss our plans and have discussed various development plans with the FAI so we are working on this.
Can you explain what was in that feasibility study?
It told us whether we were better looking at a greenfield site and a new stadium or to redevelop what we have here. I think it’s fairly obvious what the recommendation was! They think the tradition we have here and the location we have is the best choice.
The next step, which is where we are now at the moment, is talking to architects but there is nothing going to happen very quickly. Anybody who knows the planning process in this country know that.
People will understand that major renovations will take time but are there any plans in place to repair and fix certain areas in the ground during the off season? The puddles behind the town end goal against Bohemians last Friday is something that comes to mind here.
We’re supporters first of all and looking back at Friday night, I’m as annoyed as anybody that a game that had no affect on relegation or the title still attracted just over 2,000 people but — in 2017 — a lot of them still had to jump over puddles to get to a covered area.
That annoys us and frustrates us as much as anybody. We’ll look at it and if we think there are small things to do before a big change is the right thing to do we will obviously do it.
Can you expand on the Strategic Plan with the FAI?
The idea is that the FAI will come together with six or seven major projects around the country, the likes of Dalymount Park, The Brandywell, and take that to the government to see what sort of funding they can get. They are hoping to include the redevelopment of Oriel Park in that.
People don’t think we are making progress but we are. We don’t publicise everything we’re doing — we never have — and people throw that at us at times by asking ‘what are you doing up there? but we are working hard on bringing the club forward.
You talk about government backing. It was mentioned last week that Drogheda United could have a new stadium, backed by the FAI and the Louth County Council. What did you make of that?
It’s not for me to say. We met with the Louth County Council with our own plans for the future and we were told that they would help us in any way regarding planning and that sort of thing, which is fair enough, so I don’t know where that (story) is coming from.
When I spoke to you at the end of last season, you said the three priorities were securing the lease for Oriel Park, maintaining success on the pitch and continuing to develop the youth structure. First of all, how important was it to finally get control of the lease?
It was massive. The first job was to secure the finances and make them stable but we also had to stabilise the club as a whole and if we were operating out of Oriel Park without owning it, we couldn’t have done that.
If you think about it, we couldn’t have changed the pitch around which could have meant we wouldn’t have got a license to play football here as the old surface was so old. That could have presented a whole, massive set of problems.
Securing the lease has also given us the YDC which could be a potential revenue earner going forward. There’s a new bar going into it and we’ve changed the lighting over the pitches with the aid of a grant from the SEAI. We’re looking at utilising that facility and seeing how to bring income in other than attendances once every fortnight when we have a home game. Hopefully the building will enable us to do that.
Has the lease opened the door to any grant funding?
The cost of changing the lights over the pitches in the YDC came to €36,000 and we got a grant of €12,000 for that. It’s that sort of stuff really. We’re still looking at how best we can use the building. Our next step is to put together a business plan. We’ve been approached by different organisations and educational bodies to see how we can use it so it’s up to us how to use it best.
As well as being general manager, you’re also the Head of Youth Development. Are you happy with how things are going at underage level?
To win the Enda McGuill U19 Cup, a trophy named after our former chairman, was very special and the start of the U15 League and getting Tiarnan Mulvenna on the coaching staff is another big plus.
We took a gamble with the U15s in terms of a lot of the squad are underage again for next year but it has proven to be the right discussion because they have done very well thus far.
In two years time we will have an U13 team so it’s very exciting times for the club. We will be looking at using the YDC and see if we can get players in and coach them at a younger age to a higher level. Let them train with us and maybe still have them playing at their Schoolboys League clubs. We did that with a couple of the U15 players this year and it seems to have worked well.
We spoke earlier about maintaining success on the pitch. Just how important was it for Dundalk FC to see Stephen Kenny extend his contract until 2020?
We want Dundalk FC to be the biggest and best club in the country. We want to be competing at the highest level over the next 20 years and Stephen Kenny is a massive part of that. I think everybody would agree he’s the best manager in the country and he’s a massive part of what we want to do going forward.
To be fair, our owners, Andy (Connolly) and Paul (Brown) have a great relationship with him and I think they would tell you it was an easy negotiation. I’m delighted. I work with Stephen every day and I have a good relationship with him. Hopefully that continues for a long time.
There is a lot of talk that the club are moving ‘full-time’, ie: training during the day and employing coaching staff on full-time contracts. Is that something that’s on the horizon?
That’s Stephen’s end of things and he wants to look at how he can bring things forward and develop the club. It is something we’ve spoken about and we’d hope to finalise something in the next couple of weeks — if it is going to happen — because it affects other peoples lives.
It would push us to our limits but again we have the YDC and a training facility that would involve an indoor training area, an outdoor astro pitch, a gym and an outdoor grass pitch. I don’t think there are too many clubs in Ireland who would have that.
John Caulfield said this week that Cork City are looking to introduce 52-week contracts. Is that something Dundalk would be keen on?
We’d have a lot of our players on 52-week contracts already but some players prefer a one-year contract that’s over 40 weeks so they can keep their options open. It has to work both ways.
Is it hard to make plans for the future when players are waiting around at the end of every season to see what their options are and, like Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle last year, you could end up losing your biggest assets for nothing?
It is but what we are hoping is that if we can keep improving our facilities, the team and the wage structure then the players will buy into it.
Maybe they’ll think that they’re better off signing a two-year contract and staying at Dundalk rather than signing a 40-week deal and wanting to see if there’s anything that comes their way at the end of it.
If they see we’re ambitious and we’re serious about moving forward, then maybe they’ll commit that bit longer but it can be frustrating.
In terms of the current squad, is there any of them close to signing new deals?
Yes, we would hope to announce a couple in the next few days. (Note: Chris Shields and Brian Gartland signed new deals on Tuesday evening).
Not at the moment!
Before you go…
If you found this article helpful, click the 👏 button below or share the article on Facebook so your friends can benefit from it too.