RETRO | 2009: We take a look back at Dundalk FC’s return to Premier Division football

Wednesday, March 6th marks the 10th anniversary of Dundalk FC’s return to Premier Division football when Sean Connor’s newly assembled squad took on Pat Fenlon’s 2008 double winners, Bohemians. Dundalk Sport takes a look back at the events leading up to that memorable night at Oriel Park.

If you are a Dundalk fan of a certain vintage, there is no doubt you will remember the 2009 season. Whether you remember it with fondness is a different matter altogether.

After seven years in the graveyard of Division One, Dundalk took their seat at the top table of Irish football once again. To say they crashed the banquet would be something of an understatement.

With Sean Connor at the wheel, the campaign proved to be a roller coaster ride of epic proportions as the Belfast man’s very own ‘Crazy Gang’ gained notoriety throughout the country -and still ended up qualifying for Europe!

Shop Dundalk, 20 red cards, stag parties, Dave Rogers’ shorts, Joe Miller’s departure, mid-season pay cuts, eight-men versus Sligo, allegations of betting….there was never a dull moment covering the Lilywhites that season!

Connor’s clear out

Following the acrimonious departure of John Gill, former Sligo Rovers and Bohemians boss Sean Connor was installed as Dundalk’s new manager before Christmas 2008. Continuity, however, was the last thing on his mind.

Just four of Gill’s promotion-winning squad — goalkeeper Chris Bennion along with local lads Tiarnan Mulvenna, Shane Grimes and Simon Kelly — were retained. David Cassidy, the club’s Player of the Year in 2008, hit out at Connor for not doing enough to keep him at the club while David Crawley was another deemed surplus to requirements. Both ended up at Dermot Keely’s Shelbourne.

With the backing of owner Gerry Matthews, Connor was intent on building his own group and in came a cast of colourful and highly controversial characters that have gone down in Oriel Park folklore — for the wrong reasons!

Former Bohemians centre-back Thomas Heary was first in the door and named as club captain. He was followed by ex-Hearts full-back Shaun Kelly, former Drogheda United captain Declan ‘Fabio’ O’Brien and the well-travelled Dave Rogers. After dropping his shorts against St Patrick’s Athletic five months later, Rogers was shown the door, a move that ended up costing the club a five-figure sum.

‘Disco’ Darren Mansaram, who played for Connor at Bohs and Sligo Rovers also arrived and was quickly followed by three more of the manager’s trusted lieutenants: Liam Burns, Chris Turner and Harpal Singh. The capture of Burns, who was named in the 2008 PFAI Team of the Year, was a real coup for Connor. Singh, on the other hand, played until July, went off to get married and never returned!

Local lad Kyle Moran was taken in on trial but didn’t earn a contract. Two months later, he scored against Dundalk for St Patrick’s Athletic. Connor also cast his net further afield. Dwight Barnett, a Boston-based Jamaican striker with clubs such as the Westchester Flames, Cape Cod Crusaders and Montreal Impact on his CV was handed the number 15 shirt but a move for Maltese international striker Etienne Barbara fell through.

The vast majority of the squad were signed as professional players with the club going down the ‘full-time’ route for the first time in its history. Despite that, Connor insisted he would operate within the allocated budget of around €12,000 per week.

“I’d ask the fans to be patient,” he said. “The 14 full-time players are coming in at the cost of what a part-time squad would have been last year so there is no extra pressure on the finances of the club. Bringing in full-time players means you have the players every day and they are totally dedicated to playing for Dundalk. Hopefully, the fitness levels and the way that we play will reflect that.”

Hey Joe!

Introductions were made on the first day of pre-season training on January 17th. Those present were put through their paces by former Celtic striker Joe Miller who was unveiled as Connor’s assistant at what was becoming a weekly press conference at the Crowne Plaza.

“Sean and I are looking to take the club to the next level,” said Miller. “We are going to try and install a bit of professionalism like the clubs I have worked at. We have a blank canvas in front of us and we might surprise a few people.”

The Scot, who was on a rolling week-to-week contract, departed in September after Matthews enforced a pay-cut which saw the players take a reduction of 10–15% in their wage.

The signings - and press conferences at the Crowne Plaza — kept coming. Mickey Collins, a 31-year-old midfielder with Irish League and Cup medals, not to mention a host of disciplinary problems, was the latest to be unveiled at the hotel. He revealed that a conversation with former Seatown goalkeeper, Paul Murphy, persuaded him to leave Newry City.

Described by Connor as the “the best piece of transfer business I will do during the window,” Collins declared his intentions right from the off. “I’ll be living in Dundalk from Monday to Thursday and I wouldn’t leave my kids for just anything,” he told the assembled media. “I’m here to win.”

Michael Daly, a 19-year-old who was released by Manchester City, was also present, as was Jimmy Browne, the man who led Carrick Rangers to a famous Irish Cup win over Linfield in 1976. He was named as Dundalk’s Head of Recruitment and Technical Adviser and was the third member of the coaching set-up to possess a UEFA Pro-Licence.

“If you look at the management team, I don’t know of any club, north or south, that has three pro-licence holders. I’m not saying it guarantees success but it gives you a great chance,” he said.

There was a real sense of astonishment when Connor pulled off a deadline day swoop to bring former Cork City and Eircom League Player of the Year George O’Callaghan back to Ireland. “I certainly think it’s a high profile signing and it shows the ambition of Dundalk Football Club,” said Connor.

One player who slipped through his fingertips, however, was a certain Stephen O’Donnell. After leaving Bohemians, the midfielder actually lined out for Dundalk in a behind closed doors friendly against Athlone in Dublin but a move never materialised, despite Connor’s positivity.

“We have reached a deal to bring him here so, hopefully, he will put pen to paper in the next 24 hours. He’s a good player. I brought him to Bohs from Falkirk and he did really well for me. He carried that on through last season as well. He doesn’t give the ball away and he’s a quality player.”

The Louth ‘Auld Firm’

The installation of a new synthetic pitch at Oriel Park meant that Dundalk spent much of pre-season on the road where they fired blanks against Athlone Town, Wexford Youths and Monaghan United. Their only win came against Sligo Rovers at The Showgrounds, Chris Turner bagging the first goal of the Connor era.

The first opportunity for fans to run the rule over the new squad came on Tuesday, February 24th 2009 when Drogheda United hosted the Malone Cup at United Park. Ironically, six of the players who were discarded by Dundalk — Ian Ryan, Paul Shiels, Paul Crowley, Paul Smyth, Robbie Martin and Jamie Duffy — featured for the Drogs with Duffy scoring the winning penalty in a shootout.

The game ended scoreless but there were some notable moments. On his return to Boyneside, O’Brien was greeted by a pig’s head from the stands while O’Callaghan made his debut, coming on as a 19th-minute sub for Mansaram. Both players missed from the spot in the shootout. David Ward also featured, the Rock Celtic striker handed a short-term deal by Connor with a view to playing in the club’s reserve team.

In retrospect, it was a game that set the scene for what was to come. A feisty affair almost spilt over when Collins was sent-off in the 40th minute following a clash with Drogheda’s Gavin Whelan. ‘Mental Mickey’ was so outraged by referee Paul Tuite’s decision that he had to be escorted from the field by Chris Bennion!

“The referee spoiled the game in my eyes when he sent the two players off,” said Connor afterwards. “In that situation, my player came off the worst. I don’t understand how Michael Collins can be sent off when he has stud marks going from the back of his knee up to the top of his thigh but I’ve come to expect things like that in this league.”

There was also trouble off the pitch with the Dundalk bus attacked as it left United Park. Connor was far from happy, comparing the Louth Derby to an ‘Auld Firm’ fixture.

“I don’t think a game like this should be played in pre-season because there’s too much rivalry between the clubs,” he said. “This wouldn’t happen anywhere else. It’s like Celtic playing Rangers in a pre-season game — it wouldn’t happen. There’s too much bite between the two sides.”

The make-up of the Dundalk squad was certainly attracting attention. In the Irish Independent, Daniel McDonnell wrote that Connor was “assembling a collection of Irish football’s most tempestuous characters” but the Lilywhites boss did his best to circle the wagons.

“That would be typical national journalistic garbage,” he said. “It’s somebody trying to stir it. The players I have are characters. They are combative and they want to win. Some people might shirk from signing those sort of players but I certainly don’t.”

‘The second half was abysmal’

The final test before the opener against Bohs came on Sunday, March 1st when Neil Lennon brought a second-string Celtic outfit to Oriel Park for Connor’s first game in front of the Lilywhites support and the first on the new surface. After watching his side give as good as they got in the first half, Connor watched his new-look side struggle badly in the second.

Celtic arrived with a host of youngsters in their line-up. The most notable names on display were former AC Milan midfielder Massimo Donati and ex-Derry City winger Niall McGinn. Paddy McCourt, another former Brandywell favourite, made the trip but didn’t take part because of an injury.

Dundalk started well and O’Callaghan rattled the frame of the post with a header before the Hoops took the lead in the 38th minute when Ben Hutchinson got in behind the Lilywhites back four and capitalised on a mistake by Bennion to roll the ball into an empty net.

The goal failed to derail Connor’s side and they got the equaliser their direct play deserved right on the stroke of half time. The busy Declan O’Brien set Harpal Singh away on the left with a quick free-kick and his cross found O’Callaghan who popped up to seize control of the situation and slot the ball home.

The second half was a complete turnaround as Dundalk never really got into their stride and Michael Glinchey, a player that Connor tried to bring to Oriel Park, showed what might have been when he picked the ball up outside the penalty area before sidestepping Thomas Heary to rifle the ball home.

Liam Burns squandered two difficult chances to level the scores while substitute Dwight Barnett lost control of the ball with a clear run on goal in front of him. The Jamaican striker then headed wide from a Michael Daly cross in the 83rd minute. It encapsulated his short stay at the club.

Celtic put the result beyond doubt in the latter stages. Ryan Conroy was given too much room on the right and he used the opportunity to deliver a pinpoint cross to the back post where Nicky Riley rose above trialist Jamie Tandy to head home.

Asked if it had been a worthwhile exercise, Connor snapped back. “In a word, no,” he said. “The first half was useful to us but the second half was abysmal. The second and third goals were poor ones to give away. Everything was bad about the second 45 minutes. Our tempo, our passing, our work rate, our commitment; it all let us down.

“We’re not as close to being ready as I thought we were,” he added. “The second half really disappointed me but maybe it’s better that it comes now and we get a wee bit of a kick up the backside before we go into Friday. If we do play against Bohemians like the way we did in the second half we will get steamrollered. I had an idea of the team for Friday night in my head but it’s definitely put question marks over a couple of individuals.”

Back in the big time!

Five days later, on Friday, March 6th 2009, Dundalk ended their seven-year wait for Premier Division football by playing host to Bohemians, the reigning league champions, in front of the RTE cameras. The fact that Connor took Bohemians to the high court following his sacking at Dalymount Park in December 2007 only added extra spice to the occasion.

“The only motivation for me is that they are the league champions and the benchmark,” said Connor. “My other business with Bohemians finished in December when I went to court. It’s the first league game and it’s live on TV so what more motivation do you need?”

Joseph Ndo’s winning goal was a perfect illustration of life at the top. Despite being second best for most of the game, Pat Fenlon’s 2008 double winners conjured up a moment of magic in the 71st minute to take all three points.

Owen Heary’s excursion into opposition territory allowed him to dispatch a 50-yard ball into the Dundalk box and, despite having no right to win, the former Cameroon international grew enough to flash a header past Chris Bennion. Result: one nil Bohemians.

Afterwards, Fenlon complained about the synthetic surface. Unsuitable for top-flight football was his cry. In the circumstances, it seemed a smokescreen designed to cover up his side’s difficulties in overcoming an impressive and resolute Dundalk side.

Connor was hampered by, of all things, red tape. Mickey Collins was a notable absentee from the starting XI as a failure by the club to secure international clearance stopped the former Newry City man from starting in the engine room. He didn’t kick a ball until July.

It seemed to matter little in the early stages. Connor opted for Michael Daly and Chris Turner in the middle of the park and they didn’t look out of place against the experienced duo of Paul Keegan and Glen Cronin.

Daly went closest to opening the scoring midway through the first half when he rose to meet George O’Callaghan’s free-kick but his header hit the angle of crossbar and post. The Corkman, playing in a more central role just off Declan O’Brien, also had a penalty appeal waved away by referee Dave McKeon when his free-kick from 20-yards looked to have struck the outstretched arm of Glen Crowe.

Dundalk continued to hold the upper hand but they were given a warning when Neale Fenn’s clever flick set Ndo in behind Dave Rogers on the right but the former Shelbourne man could only drag his cross behind Crowe.

Killian Brennan had the first effort of the second half when he lifted a free-kick harmlessly over the bar but it was a flowing move by the home side that had the crowd applauding 10 minutes into the restart. Dave Rogers found the willing O’Brien with a good pass. The experienced full-back continued his run to collect the return ball before whipping a devilish cross into the far post where O’Callaghan just failed to meet the effort.

‘Cruel game’

A rowdy Oriel was stunned into silence four minutes later when the champions took the lead. Heary was allowed time and space to pick out Ndo with a raking pass and the powerful attacker did brilliantly to rise between Thomas Heary and Simon Kelly to power a header into the net. Dundalk were back in the big time but facing a considerable mountain to climb.

A forceful run on the right by Kelly brought the crowd back to its feet minutes later. The local defender showed great pace and power to get away from Brennan on the right flank. Hs cross was even better, finding Turner in the middle, but again the midfielder was just off target with his effort.

Tiarnan Mulvenna was introduced in a bid to salvage a point and he was at the centre of controversy in the 83rd minute. A challenge on the local striker by Anto Murphy had the crowd, and Connor, howling for a penalty.

The Dundalk manager’s protest was too much for fourth official Tom Connolly and after a discussion between himself and McKeon, Connor, to the obvious glee of the Bohemians fans, was ordered to the stand. He responded to their taunts by tapping his back pocket, a reference to the out of court settlement he reached with Bohs just four months earlier!

“We should have got two penalties,” said a disappointed Connor afterwards. “Unfortunately you don’t get big decisions against the big Dublin clubs. I’ve experienced it at Sligo and it’s starting to happen here now.

“We had what I thought was a very good penalty claim turned down and the fourth official was just a little too sensitive. Pat Fenlon was out of his box the whole night. Maybe I should put my arms around the referees and have a chat with them like the way Pat does.”

After seven years in the wilderness, Dundalk’s supporters announced their arrival back to the top tier in fine style. Almost 4,200 people packed into a noisy Oriel Park and Connor admitted the atmosphere had left him somewhat in awe.

“The Dundalk supporters answered every question that was asked of them tonight and I doubt there will be a bigger crowd anywhere in the country. It was a fabulous atmosphere and they kept us going.

“If they can stay with us then I’m convinced we will be a huge club again. I’m not naive to think that they will come if we’re not playing well but I think people in the town are savvy enough to know that it is a tougher league and we will lose some games but we hope they will always be with us.”

DUNDALK FC: Chris Bennion; Shaun Kelly, Thomas Heary, Liam Burns, Dave Rogers; Simon Kelly, Chris Turner, Michael Daly, Harpal Singh; George O’Callaghan, Declan O’Brien (Tiarnan Mulvenna 80).

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