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Kenny's departure gives Dundalk owners a dose of League of Ireland's harsh reality

The Lilywhites must appoint a new manager just weeks after winning their second double in four seasons.

AFTER GUIDING DUNDALK to another double earlier this month, Stephen Kenny could scarcely have imagined that he’d be back at the Aviva Stadium on official business just three weeks later.

This afternoon, Kenny was unveiled as the new Republic of Ireland U21 manager. He’ll occupy the role for two years, before succeeding Mick McCarthy following the conclusion of the Euro 2020 campaign.

Stephen Kenny Stephen Kenny pictured at the Aviva Stadium this afternoon. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Dundalk are being forced to come to terms with life without the man who oversaw the most successful period in their history. 

Kenny has earned his promotion by delivering four Premier Division titles, two FAI Cups and two League Cups, in addition to unprecedented achievements in Europe in 2016, during his six seasons in charge.

In time, Dundalk supporters will almost certainly yield a sense of pride from the knowledge that the manager of their club defied the widespread cynicism through which the domestic game is still viewed by earning a shot at the top job in Irish football.

Yet for now, based on the general tone of the feedback from social media, they’ve been understandably irked by the FAI’s unceremonious seizing of the key figure in their remarkable ascent from relegation candidates to perennial standard-setters.

While Dundalk FC has the resources to give it the best possible chance of continuing Kenny’s progress, fans can be forgiven for harbouring concern for the future. They’ve been spoiled by success during his reign, but difficult days are still fresh enough in the memory for them to demand a prudent approach to what lies ahead.

For his outstanding achievements, Stephen Kenny deserved what transpired to be a fairytale farewell at Lansdowne Road on 4 November.

Stephen Kenny and Vinny Perth celebrate with The Irish Daily Mail FAI Cup Kenny with Vinny Perth after the 2018 FAI Cup final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He became uncharacteristically animated after his side reasserted their superiority over Cork City by adding the FAI Cup to their Premier Division title, his shouts of  “Come on, the town!” accompanied by fist-pumps in the direction of the hefty Dundalk contingent in the stands.

Kenny has ushered in a prosperous era for Dundalk, masterminding a level of success that made the club an attractive business proposition for American investment firm Peak6, who completed their takeover in January.

The malpractice involved in similar takeovers of other League of Ireland clubs caused many observers to react with scepticism, which wasn’t aided by Peak6′s reluctance to promise significant improvements to Dundalk’s ailing home ground.

To their credit — unlike aforementioned owners elsewhere in the league — Peak6 have been transparent and accessible thus far. Chairman Mike Treacy has engaged with fans and the media, while displaying an authentic interest and passion for the club.

Having admitted that success in Europe was their ultimate aim, however, the loss of such an essential component in that project may put their commitment to the test. Stephen Kenny’s departure has given the owners a dose of Irish domestic football’s harsh reality.

Success can often be a double-edged sword, particularly in the League of Ireland. Its architects — usually the players — are often cherry-picked by teams with more financial clout, which historically has been an insurmountable obstacle for many Irish clubs with aspirations of progressing in Europe.

Stephen Kenny celebrates with Mike Treacy Kenny celebrates with Dundalk chairman Mike Treacy after the club regained the Premier Division title this year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The manager is the prized commodity in this instance, but it sends a strong message nevertheless to Dundalk’s ownership. Should their plans to develop the club proceed in spite of Kenny’s absence, their assets will become increasingly enticing to others.

When rumours of Kenny’s potential change of employment began to emerge over the weekend, they were accompanied by whispers from within the League of Ireland community that Vinny Perth, his assistant manager at Dundalk, will fill the hotseat at Oriel Park.

Considering what Kenny has built, maintaining as much of a connection to his tenure would seem wise. A report in today’s Irish Daily Star pointed out that Perth would need special dispensation to take the job until he attains his Uefa Pro Licence, but given that the FAI — according to CEO John Delaney — aren’t required to pay Dundalk compensation for divesting them of their manager, opening such a loophole for them to appoint a replacement might be the least they deserve.

As they adjust to the latest developments, Dundalk supporters can take comfort from the fact that the majority of their business was done early in tying down playing personnel for next season. The announcement of new deals for Robbie Benson and Dane Massey, whose contracts expired at full-time in the FAI Cup final, would be a timely boost now. 

Nevertheless, adapting to life after Stephen Kenny won’t be a straightforward process for the squad with whom he formed an indelible bond. Players such as Michael Duffy, the League of Ireland’s top performer in 2018, ignored interest from elsewhere by signing a new deal under the premise that Kenny would be his boss. Vinny Perth can provide an element of continuity, but his predecessor has big shoes to fill.

Dundalk celebrate winning The Irish Daily Mail FAI Cup A strong Dundalk squad remains in place. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

One of the most impressive aspects of Kenny’s stewardship was his ability to keep his team at the top despite having to overcome the losses of talismanic players like Patrick Hoban, Richie Towell, Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle, David McMillan and Patrick McEleney.

The 2019 campaign looked set to be the first for several years in which Dundalk wouldn’t be forced to contend with the departure of a pivotal figure from their squad. Instead, the man who made sure that they withstood those setbacks is the major absentee. 

Rival League of Ireland supporters have welcomed this news, but to claim that it immediately levels the playing field would be premature. Stephen Kenny may no longer be steering the ship, but the players who lit up the SSE Airtricity League in 2018 — Michael Duffy, Patrick Hoban and Chris Shields, to name just a few — remain aboard.

While it would be naive to dismiss Kenny’s departure as merely a minor speedbump for Dundalk in their efforts to scale new heights, no League of Ireland club is in a stronger position to absorb such a blow. Nothing that could happen between now and next February is likely to alter their status as the team to beat in 2019.

On the other hand, Peak6′s bid to get what they came for — success in Europe — will be a much more complicated matter.

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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