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Dublin: 3 °C Wednesday 11 December, 2019
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'I initially signed for €200 part-time, the best-paid player was on €500'

Brian Gartland has been a crucial part of Dundalk’s remarkable rise in recent seasons.

Dundalk's Brian Gartland pictured during FAI Cup Finals Media Day at the Aviva Stadium.
Dundalk's Brian Gartland pictured during FAI Cup Finals Media Day at the Aviva Stadium.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

OF ALL THE great stories in Irish football in recent years, few have been as remarkable as Dundalk’s rise, from barely getting by, to their current status as comfortably the dominant side in the country.

This afternoon, they have the chance to consolidate their legacy as one of the great League of Ireland teams.

Should they beat Shamrock Rovers, they will complete a domestic treble, becoming the first Irish side to achieve this feat since Jim McLaughlin’s Derry team managed it for the first and only time so far back in 1989.

And while Dundalk are basking in their current glory, it is easy to forget that they were struggling badly not so long ago.

As recently as 2012, they needed to beat Waterford in a promotion-relegation play-off to retain their top-flight status.

Recalling the short, ill-fated stint under the late Sean McCaffrey the season before Stephen Kenny took charge, Chris Shields, the club’s joint-longest-serving player along with John Mountney, recalled in an interview with The42 last year how the frustrated Oriel Park crowd would often get on the team’s back, adding: “We had a young squad and that’s probably why it went the way it did at Dundalk. It was just maybe a bad time for that kind of naivety going into the league.”

However, the revolution began once Stephen Kenny took charge in November 2012. An abundance of eager young players with plenty to prove were recruited, while the manager himself was likely suffering from a bruised ego. Long considered one of the best coaches in Irish football, just prior to Dundalk, the current Ireland U21 boss had endured a chastening experience at Shamrock Rovers, lasting less than a year in charge there as the club struggled to build on the success of the Michael O’Neill era.

A key early signing for Kenny was Brian Gartland. The defender has spoken previously of how he nearly join Dundalk. The centre-back was a free agent after leaving Portadown in 2013. His initial instinct was to move back home to Dublin. He event went on trial to Shelbourne.

“I had been training with them for two or three weeks and if Johnny McDonnell had offered me anything in the two weeks before, I probably would have just signed,” he recalled. 

Drogheda were also interested, but after a series of phone calls, Kenny eventually convinced Gartland to be part of his exciting new project.

To say it has worked out well since would be a significant understatement. In his first season, the Lilywhites narrowly missed out on the title, finishing three points behind St Pat’s. And having not won a single trophy in the League of Ireland during previous spells at Bray, Shelbourne and Monaghan, since signing for Dundalk, Gartland has accumulated five league titles, two FAI Cups and three League of Ireland Cups, while there is a strong chance he will pick up another winners’ medal today.

I was saying to someone earlier on, I initially signed for €200 part-time, the best-paid player was on €500. People go on about the budgets now that, that was [our status] then.

“Money’s not the be all and end all. We showed what we built this from, we’ve earned whatever budgets we have now. We’ve built it from a part-time basis for years — we went into the Europa League group stages on a part-time basis, training in the evenings. So yeah, I never envisaged what was coming when I signed.”

stephen-kenny Stephen Kenny persuaded Gartland to join Dundalk in the summer of 2013. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Gartland had a job coaching basketball at a local school, but found himself having to significantly cut back on his alternative commitments to accommodate full-time football.

“It was probably during the Europa League [group stages run] we all of a sudden became full-time. I was training a bit earlier.

“It was actually 2018 when we went proper full-time as a club in terms of training mornings, so I had to step away from other things. Obviously, I have the classes still going, I try to get to them when I can. But football comes first, everything else sort of moves around it.”

Nor was the decision to go professional a straightforward one.

I’d gone 30 in 2016, full-time football’s coming, it’s all I ever wanted, but it’s at that age where I’d built a few other things outside of football — the basketball and stuff like that. You can’t just walk away from it at that age. If I was younger, I’d say ‘grand,’ because full-time football would be brilliant, you’re only going to get better every day. I wish it came 10 years sooner when I was 20, but that’s life and you make the best of it.”

Gartland and his colleagues certainly have made the best of it. Dundalk have won the league title in five of the past six seasons. The team and squad have evolved considerably during that period. A number of key figures in various stages have departed, including Richie Towell, Daryl Horgan, Ciarán Kilduff, Stephen Kenny, David McMillan, Stephen O’Donnell and Ronan Finn. 

Yet Gartland is one of the few players who has been there for every single league title win. He was particularly crucial to the first triumph, not just as a rock at the heart of the defence, but down the other end, as he registered an incredible 11 goals in the 2014 campaign.

Yet new challenges have arisen of late. The Dubliner turns 33 tomorrow. He says that in terms of depth, the current Dundalk team is “by far” the strongest since he’s been at the club. There are 24 players who could easily feature in today’s cup final, but only 18 spots are available for the matchday squad.

For all his loyal service, even an esteemed figure like Gartland is not guaranteed to play. With Seán Hoare, Andy Boyle and Daniel Cleary all highly thought of, centre-back is probably the most hotly contested position in the Dundalk team. And consequently, the club stalwart has been held in reserve at times this season.

“I played a hell of a lot until the end of June, but in football, everyone just remembers the recent. Ever since then, you’re playing every few weeks.

“It’s been tough. I’ve kept myself well. I thought my performances have been really good. We just have such competition that you need to push and knock on the door and see you’re playing.

You need to respect your team. It’s a balance. I’ve had a week or two where I’ve been pissed off. But that’s only normal, because of the drive that we’ve got. You’ve got to check yourself back and say: ‘Right, the team needs you here,’ especially as a senior player, you’ve got to lead by example and put yourself aside.

“Everything is just put aside for the cup final, whether it’s myself or someone in a different situation — someone who knows they’re moving on in a week or two. All that’s put aside. You just do your job. You’re in good spirits and you look very good as a team. That all leads towards one thing and it’s hopefully towards winning a trophy out there on Sunday.”

Whatever happens this afternoon, it’s been quite a journey for Gartland and Dundalk as a whole. There is no doubt, though, that achieving the treble would be a fitting culmination to what has been a fairytale for player and club alike.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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