The secrets to Bohs' success: From David Attenborough to Keith Long's Little Shed

Keith Long’s fifth season at Dalymount started in darkness – but his Bohs side are embracing a bright new dawn.

Keith Long Long: "Sometimes you have to accept that decisions are made outside of your control." Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

THE BAD NEWS just kept coming.

One call after the other.

Winter was in its infancy but already Keith Long felt the darkness closing in.

In the space of 24 hours early last November, Bohemians lost three centre backs. Veteran Ian Morris and the promising Dan Casey, both of whom were at the heart of the defence for the FAI Cup semi-final just a few weeks previously, informed Long of their decision to leave for Shelbourne and Cork City, respectively.

Valued squad member Dan Byrne also made it be known that he was departing for regular football at Tolka Park, where Morris was taking up the role as head coach.

A gruelling 2018 campaign had just finished and now the Bohs manager was faced with what felt like the biggest rebuilding job of all ahead of his fifth year in charge – talented midfielder JJ Lunney having already agreed a transfer to ambitious Waterford.

“Tell me about. Every pre-season I’ve been here we have lost lads that have been exceptional for us during the season, but we go again,” captain Derek Pender says. “This was the worst.

“I felt sorry for Keith. He was very down. It was tough. I spoke to him every day in the off-season. Dan, Morro, Byrne in the same day. Nobody knows it but they all rang him in the same day, and we had no centre halves.”

And then to now, entering the fourth month of a season that has seen Bohemians exceed all expectations. They welcome Cork to Dalymount Park tonight on the same number of points as champions Dundalk, sitting third on goal difference, but only four adrift of league leaders Shamrock Rovers.

But that feeling of despair in the winter acted as a catalyst for another revival on the pitch. “It was a body blow losing the three lads, you’re reeling, you have to gather your thoughts and think how to deal with it quickly,” Long admits.

“It was hard, it was hard to deal with at that time, there is no denying that, but sometimes you have to accept that decisions are made outside of your control. That is the nature of the game. By necessity you have to turn to your different options and try to move on. You have to rely upon what you know about players, the contacts you have in the UK, the people you talk to at clubs there, and get a handle on the ones who are potentially coming back from the UK.”

Derek Pender celebrates after the game Derek Pender leads the celebrations after the derby win over fierce rivals Shamrock Rovers. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Which is where “Keith’s little shed”, as Pender describes it, comes in. It is, in fact, a Portakabin - painted a strong blue – and sits just a few yards away from the away dressing room at Dalymount Park.

It is Long’s office where he, along with influential first team coach Trevor Croly and the rest of his staff, are continually planning.

“If you go in, he has names on the walls of players, I swear to God. Eighteen months ago James Finnerty was on that wall, Conor Levingston was on his wall,” Pender continues, and his point is proven when Long admits he made sure to remove any giveaway of said information.

“I’ve just taken them down from the wall before you got here,” he laughs.

“You have to anticipate things and have a good indication of what’s out there. I’m lucky that I have good contacts in the schoolboy leagues,’ the former St Joseph’s Boys coach adds.

“Having that understanding of who might be coming back is important. There are names there now that we are already looking at, who might potentially be getting released by clubs in the UK, but you also have to know what they will need when they come home and be able to offer them something they believe in.

“Some are simply disillusioned with football, they don’t like football anymore. Our job is to remember where these young lads come from, remember why they play the game in the first place. It comes from a point of love. They love football, they love playing the game, love being involved in part of a team.”

image1 A sticker, featuring Brendan Behan, outside Dalymount Park. Source: David Sneyd

It is a quality Pender has witnessed up close. “Keith knows these lads. He knows what he’s getting and he gives them trust, he gives them belief. Levo (Conor Levingston) was out of the game for six months, nobody wanted him when he came home from Wolves. His head was gone, all over the place, he thought he was finished and was going to go play local team in Gorey in Wexford. Keith made contact with him and now he’s flying. It’s not by luck that he keeps doing this.”

But sometimes he does have to think on his feet. The arrival of goalkeeper James Talbot just a week after losing Casey et al is a case in point.

They met in the Croke Park Hotel, where the former Sunderland stopper looked across the road at GAA headquarters and still harboured a distant dream of playing there for Dublin. He had returned from the north east of England a broken man, his mental health had suffered and he sought solace with Ballymun Kickhams.

“I came away from meeting him just feeling really good about myself,” the 22-year-old recalls. “He was upfront with me, he told me not to doubt the quality of the players he was bringing in, the group we had and what we could achieve together. He spoke so well, I just felt he was someone who was looking out for me and wanted me to do well. Keith said it would be hard work but that I could eventually be number one.”

That would come sooner rather than later. On the day Talbot was announced, along with Levingston, club media officer Luke O’Riordan wrote up the press release with quotes from Long hailing Talbot as an exceptional back up goalkeeper.

“About 10 minutes later he called me back and said ‘no, he’s actually going to be number one because Supps [Shane Supple] is retiring’. I was in shock, I went white,” O’Riordan laughs. “They even called Supps to come down to make sure I was alright.”

James Talbot celebrates after his side scored their opening goal James Talbot was immediately installed as Bohs' number one. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Long, who returned to the League of Ireland as a player after a spell with Stoke City, explains: “I know what it’s like to feel like you’re on the scrap heap. I feel I have an understanding of what they’re going though and how they feel…

“There is something that it’s intrinsic in their own mind. They come home, they haven’t made it and they feel like they have failed somehow, that people judge them and think less somehow. But reality is that most people don’t care.

“This feeling of failure is over emphasised in their own minds and what we want to instil in them is that they are not failures. Things might not have worked out, but remember they still have so much to offer.

“Part of the problem for those who are talented as kids and go to the UK at a young age, they haven’t experienced a huge amount of hardship, they have got a lot quite quickly and wouldn’t have needed resilience. Young players need to have that perseverance in their make up. Some have it inherently, others need it coaxed out of them.”

Danny Mandroiu is a case in point. Signed by Brighton as a 16-year-old, the Dubliner readily admits that he grew to hate the everyday existence of life as a professional footballer away from home. As he told the Irish Mail on Sunday before the start of this season: “For the last two months, when my head had gone and I wanted out, I would do things just to make the club tell me to fuck off. I just wanted to be told to go so I would have the decision made for me. I still had two years left on my contract, but I was ready to go. I wanted to be told to fuck off, definitely.”

It is an attitude Long has been able to overturn. “Danny is a good example of boys with talent who have been given a lot quite quickly,” he begins. “Some settle into the UK easier than others. We’ve got to understand that boys are being moved out of their home and away from family so early.

“Every human is different in how they cope with that. We have hopefully been able to instil in Danny some of the values we feel are important for him to achieve. He is working hard, we want to get him to his level because he will continue to be a work in progress.”

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Danny Mandroiu Mandroiu: “Has the potential to be the best player in the league, says Pender. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Pender’s excitement is rather more palpable, though. “Danny,” he says blowing out his cheeks. “He has the potential to be the best player in the league. He is one of those young lads who you need to give confidence, have trust him and believe in. He is going to do stuff that will frustrate us all, fans, everyone. That’s for us. We have to get the best out of him and believe in him and Keith does that.

“He doesn’t get a yard in training or on the pitch. When he is getting sloppy and all of us are digging at him but he knows where it’s coming from, it’s coming from good. It’s not trying to destroy him.”

As much as the youth in this Bohs side excites – Dalymount will once again be close to a sell-out for home supporters tonight – it is those tried and trusted experienced heads that have led the way following another winter of upheaval.

Pender, for example, will leave work slightly earlier than usual in Ballsbridge today, hop on one of the Dublin City Bikes and whiz across to the north inner city where he will have his regular pre-match cup of tea and a chat with his mam in her flat.

From there it is only a few minutes up the road to Dalymount, switching from obedient son to cajoling leader.

Keith Buckley, previously a sort of whipper snapper midfielder, will be another calming voice, thanks, primarily to his new-found love of watching David Attenborough documentaries. “I love to listen to him until I fall sleep,” the 26-year-old reveals. “I need to maximise my sleep after games and his voice his great, it’s so soothing.

“I don’t want to be up until all hours, losing sleep when it is huge for recovery, so David Attenborough helps me with that.”

Keith Buckley celebrates after the game Keith Buckley. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Long notes how Buckley has matured this season, a key figure for the push to qualify for Europe and maybe just maintain this early title challenge.

“Bucko is our main man for me,” Pender reckons. “Everything he does on the pitch, the yards he covers, how hard he works, it’s infectious for everyone, he demands it from everyone and he’s becoming a real leader this year.

“I’ve seen a different side to him this year. It’s great to see and in my opinion he’s the best midfielder in the league. But we don’t want to tell anybody that.”

Bohs don’t want to give away all their secrets, after all.

- Originally published at 07.00

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David Sneyd

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