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'Brendan Rodgers could have changed my whole career; I'm so glad that he didn't'

Dane Massey reflects – in his own words – on the genius of Stephen Kenny over the last decade, the power of being a hero and why a life in England was never for him.

Dundalk's Dane Massey.
Dundalk's Dane Massey.
Image: Ciaran Culligan/INPHO

Dane Massey has been the most successful left back in the League of Ireland over the last decade, one which began with a relegation fight as a part-time Bray Wanderers player and apprentice electrician.

He ended it as a full-time professional who won five Premier Division titles, two FAI Cups and a home he was able to buy with the bonus for reaching the Europa League group stages with Dundalk in 2016.

The Dubliner has experienced two extremes on the spectrum for a footballer in this country and now, aged 31, he reflects on some of those milestones over the last 10 years.

WHENEVER I AM asked what Stephen Kenny is like as a manager there is one moment that really stands out.

It was his team talk before we played Legia Warsaw in the Champions League qualifier in 2016. I’ll never forget it. We were in the dressing room and Stephen started talking about heroes. He told us that everyone back in the town would be watching this game, and that we were all heroes to the kids there.

He reminded us how we would have all had our own heroes growing up and that now there were young kids looking at us and feeling the same.

Then he started to tell us a story of his heroes and about a bridge in Derry. He told us a story about driving home one night, his family lived in Donegal at the time, and he was explaining how this bridge was a place where people would go to try and end their life.

He said to us that nobody thinks of the people who jump in after them, the RNLI. He went through how they can be up all hours of the night, in the freezing cold, in the pissing rain, driving a boat looking up and down this river looking for a dead body or trying to save a life.

He said that those people were his heroes. It was so touching at the time, we were going out to play Legia in this huge game but he picked the moment to tell us this. He was getting emotional at the time himself, telling us all about how you look up to certain people in your life and it just got everyone going.

It was an amazing speech and that is where he was always really good, because he could hit you in the soft spot to get you going.

But it was more than just that emotional side of things with Stephen. We would go from those huge highs, of playing in Europe and then coming back to play in somewhere like Wexford where it would be hard to get going.

He would get us focused for that, he wouldn’t let us switch off. He would keep reminding us how this game was another step to our goal, that we were one step closer to what we wanted to achieve. When you were there in those moments, it always worked. He could scream in your face if he had to, but he always knew what was needed in any one point.

That’s definitely his main strength, he would always get you going for games no matter what game it was.

dane-massey-and-stephen-kenny-celebrate-after-the-game Massey and Stephen Kenny celebrate after Dundalk drew 1-1 away to AZ Alkmaar in the opening Europa League group game in 2016. Source: Karel Delvoije/INPHO

 Massey was part of the Dundalk side which lifted the league title three times in a row between 2014-16, then again in 2018 and 2019, with two FAI Cup victories for good measure. Their rivalry with Cork City defined much of this decade in the League of Ireland but 10 years ago Massey was a Bray Wanderers player finding his way in the game.

Before I ever met Stephen Kenny, Brendan Rodgers almost played a major part in changing the course of my career.

I’m so glad that he didn’t.

In 2007 I was part of a Shamrock Rovers team that went to America to play in the Dallas Cup. Rodgers was in charge of a Chelsea youth side in one of the other groups and watched our game against Sao Paolo.

He approached our manager, Stephen Fennell, and told him he could use his contacts in Britain to get me a trial across the water. I was 18 and Stephen [Fennell] had already spoken to Jim Gannon at Stockport County, so I went away there for a week.

I hated it.

I have huge admiration for any Irish player who goes over and makes a career or a life over there, because it is so hard. I was staying in digs and found myself sitting in my room every day. I would be the type of fella who talks to anyone but I don’t think the English over there were too nice, too friendly. I don’t think they were too fond of the Irish lads. But look, it is what it is.

If I’m being honest, I’ve always wanted to stay at home and be close to my family anyway. After the Europa League run with Dundalk in 2016 there was interest from clubs in League One and League Two but it never appealed. It wasn’t for me.

I feel blessed that I can sit here now at 31 years of age in a home I own in Dublin, about to get married to the woman I love and have our daughter by our side. Playing full-time football in Ireland – in front of my parents who have been able to travel home and away, all over Ireland and abroad – has allowed that to happen. Being a professional footballer here in Ireland has given me this life.

I didn’t think that would be possible when I started off with Bray Wanderers. Pat Devlin was great for me. He was in tune with his players and wanted the best for you. He would always look after his players, he is a great man, a gentleman. Keith Long was there too as his assistant and he was just starting out in his managerial career.

He brought another style of professionalism to it. It was great because he was enthusiastic, there was something new in training every week cause he was doing his badges, we’d do video analysis on a Monday which helped but we were always fighting to stay up in the five years I was there.

We were always fighting to keep going really but there were some great lads. For my 21st birthday, we went to the Guinness Storehouse. I had family who worked for Diageo so were able to book a room. Not up in the top bar, though!

owen-heary-and-dane-massey Owen Heary welcomes Massey to life in the League of Ireland. Source: James Crombie

The whole Bray team were there. We had a great night. Paddy Kavanagh, Gary McCabe, Shieldsy (Chris Shields). We were fighting on and off the pitch every week, Detser (Derek Pender) was there and was so driven.

He was a great example, I really looked up to him. He was physically strong and a good attacking full back. We couldn’t afford to play that style at Bray but I always based myself around players in the league.

Massey spent five seasons at the Carlisle Grounds before Stephen Kenny convinced him to sign for Dundalk in 2012, setting in motion the most successful stage of his career and a period of dominance at Oriel Park.

I’ll never forget my first game in the league. Owen Heary absolutely smashed me in the air. Being strong in the air is one of my strengths and he didn’t even get the ball, he just came in and smashed me. Bang!

Owen was old school, a big man too. First five minutes, just smash. I was lying on the ground in a heap and he got up and sprinted on again for the next one. He didn’t even look at me or pretent to care by helping me up. I just thought ‘oh my god, is this what’s it’s all about?’ That was the level I had to get to.

When I met Stephen for the first time to talk about joining Dundalk, it was actually a bit funny because we met in the Plaza Hotel across from Tallaght Stadium. It wasn’t long after he was gone from Rovers and some of the staff were saying how great it was that he was back.

For the first half an hour or so he didn’t talk about football or money at all, which made sense when I realised Shelbourne were offering me more money to go there! Stephen is a very well thought out man. He thinks before he speaks, which we could all learn from. My Dad owned a shop in Taylor’s Lane in Dublin and Stephen and his Dad used to deliver to the shop, he was a butcher.

He started off our first meeting with that, it was kind of nice, it was a personal touch and he knew a lot of my family, which I didn’t know.

He just wanted to know what type of person I was. He was interested in what I liked, he asked me if I had a girlfriend, what was her name was, what she does for a living. I explained she was an Irish dancing teacher. He took a huge interest and I suppose that was him getting a sense of what type of person I was and where I was in my life. I suppose it was his way of finding out if I was a piss artist or what? It was very clever. 
I told him straight out that I wanted to be a full-time professional at home and break into Europe. We shared each other’s goals. The money wasn’t great at all. I was offered a better deal with Shels but turned it down because I wanted to be a part of what Stephen was doing.

Adam Hanlon was a winger at Bray at the time. Alan Mathews was the manager at Shels and Adam actually signed for Alan. I think Shels were relegated the following season. I signed for Dundalk on less money but felt there was more to be gained by going there.

A lot of teams then came in for players at the end of our first year, when we finished second to St Pat’s in 2103. I remember meeting Liam Buckley and he wanted to sign me for them. I said no, I wanted to go on to bigger and better things with Stephen. That’s how the whole squad felt, and that’s what we did.

Dundalk reached the group stages of the Europa League in 2016, facing Zenit St Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar and Macabi Tel-Aviv. The Lilywhites had four points from their first two games when the Russians arrived to Tallaght Stadium – Oriel Park didn’t meet Uefa requirements – and at 1-0 up Massey had a golden chance to make it 2-0, but his header his the post and bounced to safety.

Zenit rallied, winning 2-1, and they defeated Dundalk by the same scoreline in St Petersburg the following month. After a promising start – becoming the first League of Ireland side to earn a point and then win a game in the group stages – Kenny’s side lost their final three games.

I can still picture the ball coming into the box against Zenit. Andy Boyle was behind me screaming for it but as it was coming in I knew I was on this. I met it cleanly. Maybe if I glanced it, it would have gone in. It was all us in that game, we were buzzing, that could have killed it maybe but then the mistakes happened, and you can’t make those mistakes at that level…

We were all in a bubble, we were playing games every two, three days and we never really stepped out of it and thought ‘Jesus, this is really happening’. When you look back at it, we were plauing in the champions league play off in Dublin. Listening to the music. It was surreal. It’s incredibly frustrating that we haven’t even got close since.  It’s going to be even harder to do what we did in 2016.

dane-massey-celebrates-with-his-daughter-georgina-after-game Massey celebrates with his newborn daughter Georgina after the 2018 FAI Cup win. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

I hope we can get there again. When Stephen left and Vinny [Perth] took over, we saw how difficult it was again in Europe. Cork were with us all the way for so long, pushing us and it was a rivalry which I think drove both teams on. We had our own standards but those games with Cork were always intense.

We have to maintain those standards and keep pushing, every player has to keep wanting to improve. I remember when Shamrock Rovers came to Bray in 2010 and won the league in our ground.

I stayed out to watch them lift the trophy because I was envious of them. I wanted that experience. I can look back now and say I’ve appreciated every moment, I’ve won five leagues.

My mam and dad go to every home and away game and it’s been amazing. I always try get a picture that night with the trophy and my parents because it could be the last. You never know what’s around the corner but I know that I want to keep going to win more trophies.

I want to have more of those memories.

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