There are many stories about how bad the bad old days got at Dundalk FC. Some are probably apocryphal, but all are plausible.
What is certainly true is that in the summer of 2012, Dundalk, the most successful provincial club in Ireland, came close to extinction. The lights went out immediately after a match at Oriel Park against Shamrock Rovers because of an unpaid electricity bill. It was an ominous portent.
"I think we may have been a couple of days from going out of business," recalls general manager Martin Connolly. The club was in a death spiral. Only Monaghan United, who later went bust, were worse off.
Poor results meant poor crowds. Players were not paid and had to be let go. Four left in one day. The rest were told that hiring out Oriel Park’s Astroturf pitch would take priority over training sessions.
Dundalk's then owner Gerry Matthews, an engineer and property developer, was struggling in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland and announced he was putting in no more money. In desperation, Dundalk turned to supporters. Just 19 came forward, donating €3,450, hardly enough for a week's wages for the playing staff. The last league game of the season saw 260 fans turn up.
Fortunately, Dundalk won a play-off against Waterford United to stay in the Premier Division. Otherwise it would have been curtains, says Connolly. Four years on, Dundalk's annus mirabilis has morphed into one of sport's greatest stories.
Some weeks ago, the manager Stephen Kenny and a few of the players appeared on the Marian Finucane Show. When was the last time, if ever, anybody from the League of Ireland got such mainstream exposure? In most countries in Europe the premier football league monopolises headlines and public attention. Contrast that with the poor, put-upon, often despised and perennially misunderstood League of Ireland. Fans care passionately, but the Irish public at large would struggle to identify a single player.
The names of League of Ireland clubs are the shipping forecast of Irish sport. Bohemians, Sligo Rovers, Shamrock Rovers, Cork City, Finn Harps – they drop like rain into the consciousness of the average listener, but feel as remote as Viking, Forties or Dogger Bank.
Odyssey in Europe
Not even Dundalk’s achievements in winning three league titles in a row, or the chance of “a double-double” on Sunday in the FAI Cup final against Cork City (having won league and cup last year), have moved the public’s imagination quite like the team’s amazing odyssey in Europe.
When Dundalk beat Bate Borisov 3-0 to qualify for the final qualifying round of the Champions League, Dundalk captain Stephen O'Donnell said: "Now, maybe, we won't be the laughing stock, we showed we can compete".
It is worth nothing Borisov, the premier club in Belarus, have qualified five times for the group stages of the Champions League and have an annual turnover of €36 million.
Now 30, O'Donnell is an articulate figure who was on the books at Arsenal as a youngster and quit school after his Junior Certificate. That is something he now regrets, but what is a football-mad youngster to do when Arsenal come calling? Who wouldn't chase the dream?
He was let go by Arsenal, played a few seasons with Falkirk, and had spells at Bohemians, Cork City, Galway United and Shamrock Rovers before joining Dundalk at the end of 2012.
He shares a house in Dundalk with four other players – John Mountney, Paddy Barrett, Alan Keane and Robbie Benson. Benson scored two of the goals of the season, one against Legia Warsaw and the other against Zenit St Petersburg.
Keane, Benson and Mountney are the cooks; he is the messy one. The camaraderie is good when the team wins, but it is a depressing house when they do not. “There doesn’t be much talking when we lose, but thankfully that has not happened too much this season.”
When Dundalk played Zenit they found themselves up against footballers such as the Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel who earns €4 million a year. O'Donnell laughs at the incongruity of players like him house-sharing like students while taking on millionaire footballers. "It would be different if we were coming out of a mansion and moving in together, but we know no different."
Being a League of Ireland footballer is a precarious business. Mostly players go from season to season, contract to contract, and only get paid for 40 weeks a year. “This week last year we won the FAI Cup and the next week we were on the dole,” he recalls. “That’s the basic harsh reality of it. It’s hard to plan your future in the League of Ireland. God knows where you’ll be next year.”
Sometimes, O’Donnell wonders if things might have turned out differently for him when he goes to toe-to-toe with these rewarded footballers. “It’s a question I ask myself every day,” he says ruefully. “They have worked hard for it, they deserve everything they get. You have to dedicate your life to being a top player. That’s something I have only realised in the last three or four years. That’s the mindset you need to play at the top. I just didn’t have that. It came to me at a late age.”
Centre forward David McMillan has no such regrets. He wears skinny jeans and designer glasses like the architect he is by day. By night, he is a striker with five goals in Champions League qualifiers to his credit. The manager jokes that if he scores the goals that finance a new stadium for Oriel Park, he can design it himself.
Most Dundalk players are full-time professionals by accident rather than design. Dundalk train in the evening, so players can have day jobs, but the commitment is such that only a half a dozen of them do so.
McMillan has a master’s in architecture from UCD and is trying to get qualified as a project architect with the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI). He works in O’Brien Finucane Architects in Dublin, finishes up in the afternoon, gets into his car and drives to Dundalk. He is back home at 10.30pm.
McMillan believes hard work rather than superior talent has got him this far, though many Dundalk supporters witnessing his performances might beg to differ. “I think I’ve been quite fortunate to make it to this level. There are other players who may have felt they could have made more from their career. The wasted talent, I don’t think that’s me.”
Nearly 28, McMillan concedes that a big money move to an English club is probably beyond him now. Even if one came calling, it would probably be in the lower leagues and he would not get the chance to play in Europe. “It is not worthwhile. Between the job and the football, things are set up nicely for me.”
In no rational universe should Dundalk (estimated annual budget €1 million) be competing, least of all be competitive, against the likes of Zenit St Petersburg (€145 million), AZ Alkmaar (€23 million) or Maccabi Tel Aviv (€20 million).
Yet, in this incredible year when Iceland got to the quarter-finals of the European Championship and unfashionable Leicester City won the Premier League, anything in football seems possible.
Dundalk were inches away from a draw against Zenit in St Petersburg on Thursday when Patrick McEleney’s perfectly executed volley hit the crossbar with just eight minutes left. Dundalk eventually lost 2-1.
So far Dundalk have earned €6.5million from a European odyssey that has taken them to Iceland, Belarus, Poland, Holland, Russia and Israel, with victories against Icelandic champions Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar (FH), Bate Borisov and Maccabi Tel Aviv.
They earned more from getting one point against AZ Alkmaar (€120,000) than they did for winning the SSE Airtricity Premier Division (€110,000). It is unimaginable riches for any League of Ireland club.
The question of how Dundalk spends its largesse will determine the club’s fate for years to come. Oriel Park, which proclaims itself as “the home of football”, is a broken-down shack. Everything is scuffed and dingy. The much-derided Astropitch has turned an ugly bottlegreen and needs replacing. The toilet door in the directors’ box has no latch and that is the posh bit.
Dundalk is a proud footballing town and the club and supporters alike feel keenly the embarrassment of having to decamp to Tallaght Stadium for European matches, rather than playing at home.
Yet the much needed refurbishment may be a long way off. Dundalk FC own neither the ground nor the lease. The ground is owned by Des Casey, the former FAI official who brought Jack Charlton to Ireland, and the lease by Gerry Matthews.
In 2012, the club was taken over by two local businessmen, Andy Connolly and Paul Brown, who own Fastfix in the town. They paid off the accumulated debt of €192,000, and appointed Kenny. Dundalk has not looked back since.
Matthews has held on to the lease because he feels he is owed money from a €3.8 million youth development centre that was conceived in the Celtic Tiger years, but not opened until 2010. It is now closed.
Last February, before the season opened, Matthews threatened to withhold the lease, which could have scuppered Dundalk’s season before it even started. However, the crisis did not come to pass.
Dundalk FC deny owing Matthews any money, though the two sides are in a legal dispute. Life-long Dundalk fan and former minister Dermot Ahern counsels patience. "There are no easy solutions. People appreciate that," he says. "If it were an easy issue, it would have been sorted out a long time ago. It's terrible on these very successful nights that we have to traipse up to Dublin. It is a huge business loss."
The European journey will net Dundalk at least €3 milllion, believes Martin Connolly. “But we haven’t had 10 minutes to sit together as a board and take the next step”.
Sorting out the lease, though, will be the first priority. "We cannot do anything to develop Oriel Park until we can safeguard the lease," he says. Even a move to the Dundalk Institute of Technology campus, as has often been mooted, would still mean a couple of seasons more at Oriel Park.
The battle over the ground has never overshadowed the football. Dundalk's vulnerabilities have been exposed again by Brexit and sterling's collapse, but the feel-good atmosphere created by football is palpable.
The flags and bunting are everywhere. Dundalk's run has even given birth to a memorable catchphrase first coined by LMFM commentators Adrian Taafe and David Crawley after Ciarán Kilduff's last-minute equaliser against AK Alkmaar. "Get in there, ya lad, ya," has been converted into a T-shirt slogan and 350 were sold in a few days in aid of the Cara Cancer Support Centre.
On and off the pitch, the players have behaved with honour. "Since these lads came on board four years ago, I've got to know them on a personal level," says long-time fan Margaret Curtis. "They are the best bunch of young individuals you could meet when you see their involvement in the community and how they interact with fans. I've never seen that in 46 years with the club."
Presiding over it all is the reassuring figure of manager Stephen Kenny. If the club holds on it him and star man Daryl Horgan (one of two Dundalk players called up this week for the Ireland squad – Andy Boyle being the other), at the end of this season of all seasons, it will be excellent business.
Kenny knows, in Europe, Dundalk are not just representing the League of Ireland, they are the League of Ireland. There are players from nine counties and all four provinces .
Football’s family has embraced them. “They are saying, ‘we love the way you play. That’s how we want our own young people to play. We’re fully supportive of you.’ That’s really encouraging,” says Kenny.