GMCL: Mike, can we go back to last November when Stephen Kenny left. Continuity was the word banded about after his departure but it wasn’t just continuity for the sake of it. You obviously saw something special in Vinny during your first season at the club. What was it that impressed you so much?
MT: Continuity is the word that was used but the real word to be used is culture. One of the main reasons we came in was because of the culture that Stephen built at Dundalk FC. We saw the culture and work ethic of the people involved and for us, Vinny embodied that. You also have to remember that we convinced Vinny, and he believed in us, back in the spring of 2018 to go full-time at Dundalk FC.
We had to move faster to fill Stephen’s shoes than we would have planned but we knew what we were getting into. With Stephen, and the success he was having, we thought he’d be gone in three years but he did so well he was gone in 10 months! The day after Stephen left, Vinny and the senior players stepped up and felt they had something to prove this year.
GMCL: They’ve certainly done that! Twenty-nine games unbeaten is an incredible record.
MT: I think that’s borne out of what happens on non-match days. You can’t really control what happens during a game but you can control what happens on non-match days in terms of the way we take care of our players’ bodies and the way we focus on the small details using analytics and video sessions throughout the season. That’s every single day. Nobody takes a day off, from top to bottom. That’s how you explain a 28-point turnaround. People think it’s crazy but it’s not. It’s about doing your job to the best of your ability — every single day, no matter what it is.
Everybody at the club is all in. That started last November and there has just been an intense drive to be perfect and do things that nobody has done before. From June 28th, these guys have been playing games every 3.8 days which is borderline unhealthy for their bodies but they have stuck through it and they have almost been robotic in the way they have done everything. We have two cups already and there’s another one to play for and I’m confident we can go on and make history.
GMCL: What were you thinking back after those two losses back in April? Thirteen points adrift with key players like McEleney and Benson out with long-term injuries, the pressure was really cranked up on Vinny and the management team after those defeats.
MT: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I’m a math guy so, for me, I was looking at the probability of winning the league and the probability of that when we were 13 points down was still around 60%. We knew we still had a long season ahead. We still had two games in hand and we tend to win games here. We knew we were built for the long run. Even though we stumbled early on we knew we had all the small parts in place to withstand that.
GMCL: One of the stories of this season has been Vinny’s use of the resources available to him. Every player has had a big input into how the season has gone
MT: Yeah, everybody has contributed and it’s an honour for me to help create the structure and to get the buy-in because what we’re doing is different from what was done in the past. We’re asking more of our people and they have delivered. It’s not just on match day. That’s just 90 minutes. If you’re around here every day, in training, you’ll see young guys like Dylan Hand and Lido Lotefa giving it their all. They know if they’re not doing their best then the person that’s ahead of them won’t be challenged in training which then results in lower performance on a match day. They are consummate professionals.
GMCL: When the players came back in January for pre-season, they were greeted by some major redevelopments to the gym and dressing rooms in the YDC. How important was it to create that sort of environment for the group?
MT: One thing I think we can all agree on in life is that you need to want to come into work. You need to love your job. If you look at the changing rooms we use on match days, they’re not acceptable. For the guys who come from Dublin and who commute from different places, to build a proper locker room and give them their own little bit of space and real estate helps them psychologically. It makes them feel comfortable and at home.
When they finish training, they’re not getting into the shower thinking ‘I want to get out of this place’, they’re sitting in a comfortable environment, they’re chatting, they’re interacting, they’re playing card games, they’re relaxed. I think it’s a part that goes unnoticed but player psychology is something we have put an emphasis on. How do we create an environment that keeps them motivated, hungry and comfortable to come in and give everything?
GMCL: Let’s talk about Europe. You’ve had a couple of months to digest it now. What are your feelings on it?
MT: We did as expected. Going back to math, we were favourites to win round one against Riga and we weren’t favourites to win against Qarabag or Slovan Bratislava. You need a bit of luck to go your way. We know that but, if anything, it was a lesson for next year. It was Vinny’s first as a European manager and we can only get better going forward.
GMCL: Can Dundalk FC bridge that gap between the qualifying rounds and the group stages? In my opinion, it’s getting more difficult with each passing year.
MT: I think it’s really easy to look at the results and jump to that conclusion but I don’t think we would have said that going into the campaign. While the results didn’t go our way, if you look at some of the spells we had in the games; Qarabag didn’t want anything to do with Dundalk for the last 20 minutes of the game at Oriel Park. Against Slovan, we conceded two poor goals but we also produced some of the best-attacking football we’ve played this season.
One thing I think we can do a better job of is preparing for the competition. If you look at the weeks leading up to Europe, we had some time off in June and it would have been helpful to maybe have played a friendly against some of the competition that we might have faced. I think it’s identifying where we can be great and tapping into that for 90 minutes over four qualifying rounds.
We know there’s a huge gulf in competition. We’re going up against squads that in some instances have a budget 20 times the size of ours but anything can happen in a football match and if you go into a game thinking like that, you won’t achieve anything.
GMCL: Is it realistic to make that jump when you compete in a domestic league where the sponsorship and prize-money are minimal, and the competition is arguably the weakest it has been for quite some time?
MT: The League of Ireland has to get better. It’s not good enough for anyone. If you look at the league right now you have two types of clubs: benefactor clubs or supporter and community-owned clubs. We need everybody to be at a higher standard. If we’re at a higher standard, it benefits us going into these other competitions and if we raise the standard, it makes the league more attractive to players across Europe.
There’s a lot that the League of Ireland has to offer. A lot of players who come across to play in this league are here for a week and they’ll say ‘I didn’t expect this’. They are shocked. They come in with an impression that this is a setback for their career but they get here and they see the quality of the play and the professionalism.
There’s a lot of positives but everybody has to come together and figure out what the best solution is going forward. There’s a lot of uncertainty and questions that remain unanswered but everybody understands that a change needs to happen. It needs to happen for the betterment of football in this country. I don’t think you can improve at national or European level without that league pathway.
GMCL: From listening to that, it appears to me that the owners are adopting a long-term view of things. You sound like you’re willing to give it time for the league to sort itself out.
MT: Right now, the League of Ireland is clearly at the bottom. Things didn’t work out for is this year in Europe but we’re taking a long-term approach by investing in facilities as a way to attract players and make our players better. If we keep doing things differently and focussing on the small things, it will ultimately lead to success in Europe.
Can you understand why people feel that success in Europe is the be-all and end-all for the owners?
MT: There is always this doomsday scenario that if we fail in Europe the world will end. It’s not the be-all and end-all but we know it’s a high source of revenue for us and if the question for us is to put money into the YDC facilities to increase our chances of success in Europe or spend the same amount on building a new away end — which I’m completely sympathetic off — then we’re going to make the business decision that increases our chances in Europe. Money doesn’t grow on trees, especially in this league, but if we don’t do well in Europe then we better get back the following year and have another shot at it.
GMCL: The owners have come in for some criticism this year, notably from the likes of Ewan McKenna, after the European exit this season. What did you make of that?
MT: I’m not too concerned about what is said in the media. People don’t see what happens here on non-match day and the things we are doing so I don’t expect people to see the level of focus and attention we have and what makes us unique. People don’t know what they don’t know. I don’t expect praise for anything that we have done. Our goal is to go out and win matches and I think we are starting to see the guys get the praise they deserve. Hopefully, we can go on now and win the treble and this group will be looked at as one of the greatest in history.
GMCL: I saw you tweeting after the game last night that preparation for the 2020 Champions League was already on your mind.
MT: This is an opportunity for us. Time is the most valuable thing you have. Given the turnover last season and the delay in getting the approval to announce Vinny as head coach, it wasn’t until January that we could start preparing for the season. Vinny and I are already meeting now to discuss what pre-season 2020 looks like and what our summer preparations will be like ahead of Europe. You have to do that now. We’re the second team in Europe to qualify for the Champions League so we have that time component on our side. Yes, there might be a financial gulf between the likes of us and Qarabag but they don’t have the time to prepare that we have. Nobody else in Europe is having the conversations we are having about how we can do better next year so I think we’re in a fortunate position.
GMCL: Finally, I’m sure you’re asked about this constantly from the media and supporters every time you come here but is there any plans in the pipeline to redevelop the place?
MT: Small, cosmetic ones at best. I said this on RTE. We’re not going to spend five of six million dollars to build an 8,000-seater arena in a town of 40,000 people that is only at capacity 10 times a year but we’re willing to work with local leaders and at a national level with the FAI.
This place needs to be done up and needs to be the centre of the community. This is one of the most unique clubs in Ireland in the sense that Dundalk is a football town. The entire town was buzzing last night and that centred around what was happening at Oriel Park. It should be a place where people come every day. The ground needs to be renovated but it’s also going to cost a lot of money to do so and we need partners to do that.
GMCL: Have the club held any discussions with Louth County Council about this? Surely it would be in everybody’s interest to come together?
MT: We need to go to them with a plan. As much as I say we need help, we can’t just sit back and cross our arms. We need to come in with an actual plan and say ‘here’s what we’re going to do’, ‘this is the benefits to the community’ and ‘this is the benefit to the football club’ and find a fine balance between them. That’s going to be our responsibility over the next several months.
GMCL: So that’s something the club will be actively looking to do over the winter? Putting a plan together to present to the council?
MT: Yeah, absolutely. It needs to be a plan with them. We need to work with them. There’s a lot of work to do. We should not have a synthetic surface, for example. We need to have a grass pitch. We need coverage over here at the town end and the away end. We have so much to do here but we need help from the community and we need to come together.
We did a large-scale project in the YDC that cost a significant amount of money so I don’t think people can just sit back and ask ‘when are you going to do this or that’. We are doing our best within the time constraints of what we can do. You only have so much time to do certain things throughout the year while still focussing on winning the league and doing well in Europe. I think everybody needs to come together and develop a five or 10-year plan for how this place will look.
GMCL: Does it frustrate you that you’re constantly asked about the ground?
MT: No. It’s understandable. I said earlier that you need to love the place where you go to work each day. You shouldn’t have to wear your worst pair of shoes to Oriel Park because it’s a swamp. I understand it and I get it. Families want to come here and they can’t because it’s pouring rain and there’s no coverage. I can assure everyone that we are working as hard as we can in our time constraints to achieve everything that we want to achieve. Have we focussed too much on the first-team relative to infrastructure? I don’t know the answer to that. That remains to be seen.
GMCL: In fairness, this ownership group has always said that stadium redevelopment was secondary to success on the pitch…
MT: Yeah, but you also have to think about the future. I think it would be cheap for us to say ‘hey, we’ve won two league titles, we don’t need to do something’ because clearly, we do. You talk about how we get better as a club. Players need to want to come and play here so it is, synthetically, an investment in the first-team if we have a proper environment here, a grass surface etc. It will only improve us on the pitch if we improve the infrastructure.
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