'The budget is majorly scaled back, but I think our last two years shows it’s not just about money'

Dundalk stalwart Brian Gartland talks to The42 on the eve of the new League of Ireland season.

IN THE FINAL days of Peak6 last year, personnel at Dundalk had winnowed to the point that there weren’t sufficient medical staff to tell Brian Gartland he might have been pushing too hard for a return. 

Gartland was battling fiercely back, having torn his ACL just 30 seconds into a league defeat away to Shamrock Rovers in April. It was the most significant injury of a garlanded, 16-year League of Ireland career. 

brian-gartland-down-injured Gartland suffers his serious injury against Shamrock Rovers. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It never came into my head I wouldn’t be back”, he tells The42. ”It wasn’t a thing I made a point of, but I never think that I can’t do anything. And if anyone says I can’t do anything…all the more reason to do it.

“That never popped into my head. A few people mentioned it to me and I was thinking, ‘Why are they saying that?’, but I guess it’s [down to being] one of the older players, and it’s an injury which used to be career ending. But it’s not anymore. Ray Moran in Santry did the surgery and he’s done thousands of them at this point, so I just always thought if I’d graft for a year I’d get back in.”

He has grafted and now he’s back: having joined in some possession-based drills toward the end of last season, Gartland completed a full pre-season and made his comeback in a friendly against Cobh Ramblers last month.

As he maintained that comeback the club changed around him, albeit to something more familiar. The club returned to local hands when a consortium led by former owner Andy Connolly and sports technology firm Statsport struck a deal with American investment fund Peak6, whose initially successful ownership curdled into dysfunction last year.

Thus Dundalk – with the league’s largest budget – ended up in a battle to avoid a relegation play-off, ultimately finishing sixth, arresting a slide to disaster by winning three of their last four games. 

A return to local ownership has prompted a cultural reboot of sorts, with Stephen O’Donnell leaving St Pat’s to return as manager, bringing former players John Mountney and Robbie Benson back to Oriel Park with him.

There have been significant departures, however: Michael Duffy, Patrick McEleney, Will Patching and Cameron Dummigan have all gone north to Derry City to play for another Dundalk alumnus, Ruadhri Higgins, while Daniel Cleary has gone to St Johnstone in Scotland and Sean Murray has left for Glentoran.

2022-sse-airtricity-leagues-launch Brian Gartland at the official launch of this year's SSE Airtricity leagues. Source: Harry Murphy/SPORTSFILE

Some of last season’s big-money signings, including the bafflingly disappointing Wilfried Zahibo, have left the club too. The budget for 2022 has been greatly reduced, but Dundalk are out to disprove the correlation between money and success having done so in precisely the wrong way last year. 

“It’s great to be back at the club, it’s a happy environment”, says Gartland. 

“Obviously the [budget] is reduced from what it was and majorly scaled back, but I think the last two years shows it’s not just about money. You can have double the budget, but if the decisions and the running of the club is questionable, you don’t get the benefit of that.

“It’s enjoyable, I love going in. It’s a great group between staff, management and players, just really good and positive. But there’s a hell of a work ethic. Everything is left out on the pitch and in the gym sessions, people doing the right stuff away from training. That’s the real positive for me, seeing that back, as that’s the real foundation for success.

“I’d be very realistic in terms of where we are sitting in relation to other clubs. Rovers should run away with it at a canter again. It’s theirs to lose. Derry – big money and big signings – are looking to push Rovers and I expect them to push Rovers. Pat’s came second and won the Cup and increased their budget again, so they will be expecting to be up there and Garrett Kelleher will be expecting them to be up there.

“Bohs, fairly big budget, quality squad, they have added quality in [Kris] Twardek and other players, they have good quality in the centre of the pitch. Sligo are in Europe so they have a good budget there.

“I’ve named half the league there! And our budget is slashed in half from last year. So that’s the realism, but that’s not to say that’s the order of it. Look at our budget last year: it was massive but we were very poor.

“All these clubs are in a better position than us, on and off the pitch. We are on a rebuild, we need to build the club back to where it was. A lot of new players in and so on. And there’s a lot of expectations on those other clubs and rightly so. For us, it’s just game by game, we need to integrate all of these new players. Down in Galway [for a pre-season game] we had one player in the starting XI that was at the club last year, Darragh Leahy.

“But the environment is competitive as hell, we compete like dogs and we want to win every game.

Gartland has been playing in the League of Ireland since 2005, and our conversation is conducted in the shadow of last week’s spasm of FAI reports and commitments. First came the commitment to co-hosting Euro 2028 and then the four-year strategic plan, partly built on a promise to upgrade league facilities.

The FAI are committing to auditing all grounds this year, with a view to producing an infrastructure plan in 2023. The Association’s new leadership are insistent they can bid for glamorous international events while upgrading the degraded facilities at home, and Gartland hopes – if not believes – they will deliver. 

“Do I see that it’s going to progress? No, because I’ve never seen anything to give me belief that it will. During those 18 years [of my career], there’s been the Genesis Report and another two reports. It’s great doing reports but it’s the old actions speaking louder than words. And we don’t see actions. I know there’s been troubles financially, but I think when we look to other sports and codes, and you look at their branding done over the last few years. That’s the main thing: we need to make it an attractive brand. And we don’t have a sponsor for the international team. I’m looking at that and thinking, we have a manager out of the league and associated with football here, we have all these young players representing diverse backgrounds and a new Ireland – Ogbene, Bazunu, Omobamidele – we have all these multi nationals here, and we still can’t get investment.

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“So nothing seems to be progressing especially on the League of Ireland front. And if the international team can’t get a sponsor for the front of the jersey…I am not saying I have the answers, but I’d love to see the industry here progress, as I’ve gone through my whole career and it hasn’t.

“Some of the dressing rooms are the exact same as they were when I first went into them 18 years ago. I wouldn’t like to describe some of them to you. People will point to Dundalk, and that’s the prime example.

“My argument for people who pointed to Peak6 – and it’s not often I was defending Peak6, or the regime last year anyway – they owned the lease on Oriel, they didn’t own Oriel. If you’re renting on a house, are you going to build an extension on it?

“It’s not an easy one, there’s no money just to hand out to build stadiums, but anytime we go to Europe, it’s all municipal grounds. Pull up to a ground in Scandinavia, there are four basketball courts outside.”

With Dundalk’s season beginning tomorrow night against Derry, Gartland’s focus on those wider issues will narrow once again to the relentless beat of the long domestic season. 

“In terms of ambition, we’re not going to say we’ll go and win the league, because that’s putting ourselves out there when we’re not in a position compared to those other clubs.

“But we will be as competitive as we can and finish as high up the table as we can. That’s the goal.”

Gavan Casey is joined by Bernard Jackman and Murray Kinsella to discuss the prospect of South Africa replacing Italy in the Six Nations and reflect on Ireland’s performance in Paris, before looking ahead to the URC action this weekend.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Gavin Cooney

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