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The rewards have justified the risk for Stephen Kenny's most trusted lieutenant

Left-back Dane Massey played more games for Dundalk under Stephen Kenny than any other player.

IN LATE SEPTEMBER, Dane Massey experienced another example of why the Dundalk players were willing to place their trust in Stephen Kenny for six years.

Dane Massey and Stephen Kenny celebrate after the game Dane Massey and Stephen Kenny pictured after Dundalk's 1-1 draw with AZ Alkmaar in 2016. Source: Karel Delvoije/INPHO

Forty-eight hours prior to their FAI Cup semi-final, Massey’s partner Lisa gave birth to their first child. Georgia had arrived much sooner than she was expected to, however, which made for a trying time for the family.

Having played more games under Kenny for Dundalk than anyone else, Massey was already accustomed to the manager’s propensity for dealing compassionately with personal challenges that affected each of his players. Nevertheless, the left-back appreciated his benevolent stance, particularly at such a vital stage of the season.

In spite of the situation, Massey managed to play all 90 minutes as the Lilywhites booked their place in a fourth consecutive decider with a 1-0 win over UCD. In his handling of the predicament, Kenny utilised the man-management skills behind the coaching philosophy for which he has often justifiably been lauded.

“Georgia was born premature — she was five weeks early — so it was a tough one,” Massey explains. “She arrived on a Wednesday evening and we were playing UCD on the Friday. We were also just one game away from winning the league, so it was a mad time.

“Stephen Kenny was just brilliant. He pulled me aside and said ‘take as much time off as you need’. Obviously I didn’t want to rule myself out of such a big game. He asked me if I’d had a night’s sleep and if I’d been eating right, which I had. I put myself forward and he played me, which was a great vote of confidence to get.”

Some weeks later, Massey was on the pitch at the Aviva Stadium celebrating double success for the second time in four seasons. As baby Georgia used the FAI Cup for a makeshift cradle, the photographers gathered around.

“We had a hard year with Dundalk in 2017,” he recalls. “Coming second to Cork in the two competitions was a bit of a sour one. We had a tough time as well with the baby before she was born — she’s doing great now, thankfully — so it was a big relief that everything came together.

“To win the double and then to be able to enjoy it with my daughter like that, it was a very proud moment in my life. Really special. I’ll have that picture of her in the cup forever. It’s something I definitely won’t forget.”

Ireland: Cork City v Dundalk - Irish Daily Mail FAI Cup Final Dane Massey with his daughter Georgia after Dundalk's win over Cork City in the 2018 FAI Cup final. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Dundalk’s 2-1 victory against Cork City on 4 November gave Massey his second FAI Cup medal. In addition to the four Premier Division title triumphs he has had a key role in, it’s a haul that has justified a difficult decision he made around this time four years ago.

After winning their first league title under Stephen Kenny, Dundalk’s players were asked to double down on their commitment in a bid to take the club to the next level. The future looked bright at Oriel Park, but relying solely on the League of Ireland for one’s income is a policy that backfired on many peers in the recent past.

While playing his part as Dundalk became champions of Ireland for the first time in nearly a decade, Massey had continued to work as an electrician at Jervis Street Shopping Centre.

It was only two years since he came through another relegation battle with Bray Wanderers, so tougher times were still fresh enough in the memory to leave him cautious. But not for the last time, it was time to place his trust in Stephen Kenny.

“Stephen really wanted to push on and make an impression in Europe, which would be based on a full-time football club. That was a commitment we needed to make to go to the next stage. Personally it was a massive risk,” Massey admits.

“When I first walked into the Dundalk changing room there were guys like Richie Towell and Andy Boyle, but really no one had a clue who anybody was. This was a club that finished bottom of the table the year before.

“But everybody had massive faith in Stephen Kenny. The first couple of years obviously went very well, and at this stage it would probably be safe to say that it was a great risk to take.” 

Having taken note of the philosophy Kenny sought to impart to his players from the touchline when he faced his teams as a member of the opposition, Massey didn’t need much convincing when he received a call from the newly-appointed Dundalk manager in 2013.

Dane Massey Massey during his time at Bray Wanderers. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“It was a huge compliment when Stephen rang me up and asked me to sign for his team. His teams have always been great footballing sides,” he says.

“I remember playing against his Derry side that had the likes of James McClean in it. I think they were beating us 2-0 or 3-0 at the time, it was probably in the 89th minute so you’d think they’d be running it into the corner to waste time, but he kept at them, encouraging them to play the right way. 

“I always admired him for that. That had a huge part to play when he contacted me about going to Dundalk. I told myself I definitely want to play for this man. I’m delighted I did.”

Kenny’s recent departure for the Ireland U21 manager’s job, and his imminent promotion to the senior role, didn’t come as much of a surprise to Massey.

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He says: “It’s fantastic for Stephen. He’s getting the top job in the country. We’re all extremely proud of him and we feel we’ve played a part in helping him to get that job. 

“I think the next step now is for the current manager to start calling in a few League of Ireland players. It’s something they’d definitely be able for. If Mick McCarthy brings in a few lads, he’ll be surprised by the standard.”

With 2018 drawing to a close, Massey can reflect with a sense of satisfaction on a year in which he took his tally of Dundalk appearances to just shy of 250. Dean Jarvis arrived from Derry City ahead of the campaign to provide Dundalk with another option in his position, but Massey remained Stephen Kenny’s preferred choice at left-back.

“When Dean Jarvis came in it was a challenge for me, the same way it was when Shane Grimes was there before,” he says. “Bringing Dean in pushed me on because he’s a fantastic player and I knew I’d have to work twice as hard to get in ahead of him. I feel I’ve had a good year. Dean has great attributes and we’ve pushed each other on.”

Dane Massey celebrates at the final whistle Celebrating after the 2018 FAI Cup final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

An important moment in Dundalk’s superb season occurred on its very first day, according to Massey. They may have squandered a two-goal lead to lose their President’s Cup clash with Cork City, but the Lilywhites still managed to yield something useful from the 4-2 defeat.

He explains: “We went in at half-time 2-0 up and there was a bit of argy-bargy in the tunnel. Ourselves and Cork don’t get along at the best of times — which is good, it’s the kind of rivalry you want — but there were words said that day which spurred us on to achieve what we did. 

“In the huddles before the league games, we always brought it back to what was said in that President’s Cup game. It gave us that extra determination to go on and take our title back.”

One of the main objectives for the Dundalk players next season will be to create more career-defining memories while competing in Europe, as they did in 2016 by reaching the group stages of the Europa League.

A heavy loss in 35-degree heat in Cyprus in August put the extent of the remarkable achievements of two years ago in stark perspective. Making inroads against the best from abroad is a tall order, of which the 4-0 defeat to AEK Larnaca served as a sobering reminder.

While their domestic rivals will hope that Stephen Kenny’s absence leaves Dundalk vulnerable, Massey is adamant that they can continue to set the standard domestically before turning their attentions to another bid for a successful European campaign.

“After drawing with them [AEK Larnaca] at home we felt confident going over there for the second leg. But playing in that heat was a different story altogether,” says the Dubliner.

“I think we were 2-0 down after 20 minutes and all of a sudden you’re trying to climb a mountain against a team of that quality. Preparation is key in Europe and I don’t think we were ready for that. Making an impression in Europe is definitely something we’ll target next year.”

Dane Massey with Aleksandr Anyukov and Aleksandr Kokorin In possession against Zenit Saint Petersburg in 2016. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He adds: “With Stephen Kenny moving on, I’m sure other League of Ireland teams might think it has made us weaker. But in terms of the squad I think we’ll be the strongest we’ve ever been going into a season. The new manager will want to put his stamp on things too. It’s an exciting time and it’s a challenge to look forward to.

“Pat Hoban went over to Oxford after a great year with us in 2014 and he missed out on a European run. To this day he asks the lads about that experience, the stadiums and cities we went to and everything else that was involved.

“It was a massive highlight of my career and it’s one he’ll definitely want to experience himself. It’s the same for the other lads who weren’t there that year, as it is for myself and the lads who had a taste of it and want more.”

The Stephen Kenny era has come to an end, but this Dundalk side is determined to ensure that the most successful period in the club’s history continues unabated. 

Massey, who turned 30 in 2018, says: “The team is in great shape and personally I’ve looked after myself, so I feel great. I want to keep going for as long as my body will allow me to. 

“We’ll see what the future holds. I’m doing a bit of coaching with Knocklyon United now and I’ll be doing my badges soon as well. I won’t be picking up my tools again for a while anyway. There’s plenty more we want to achieve yet.”

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Paul Dollery

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