Amid all of the excitement around one of the biggest games in Dundalkâs history, there have been some tough choices, and tough moments.
âAs you can imagine, everyone who works here wants to go and see the game,â Martin Connolly, Dundalkâs chief operating officer, explains. âBut weâve been looking at a travelling party of 38 or 39 on a charter flight of 189 seats, trying to ensure everybody is two metres apart. Itâs great to be at this level and worrying about these things, but itâs tough to tell people âyou canât travelâ, because of the numbers.â
Thatâs before you get to the fans, who shouldnât be forgotten in this. Dundalk took more than 1,000 to their Europa League group game away to AZ Alkmaar in 2016, so the expectations for Arsenal would have been far greater.
The fact that the club have drawn such a big fixture at such a time is not the only reason many describe all this as âbittersweetâ. In many ways, the empty stadium for such an impressive feat reflects a growing disconnect about the direction of the club under American owners, Peak6.
âIf there were supporters at games right now, they would be making their displeasure felt,â explains one figure who knows the club well. âThey are lucky the games have been closed doors or else there would be more vocal opposition to them. Itâs weird and sad in a way. It should be a landmark occasion to reflect this era, but thereâs a lot of cynicism instead.â
The 2016 run was a "fairytale" that had almost everything. Just five years after the club almost went bust, manager Stephen Kenny had guided them to this stage for the first time, and propelled himself to the Irish senior job. He will be in charge of the national side for the friendly at Wembley against England in November. The only thing missing from 2016 was a true glamour fixture like this. The problem this time is that, far from a fairytale, it has almost been a Succession-style drama, tinged with black comedy, farce and genuine tragedy.
Much of it revolves around the owners, Peak6, a Chicago-based private equity firm.
Many other figures in Irish football had feared their own version of a Juventus or Bayern Munich when Dundalk were taken over in late 2017, which came in the middle of a run of five league titles in six years.
The fact they last week surrendered their title to Shamrock Rovers, and are currently fighting to get back into Europe, shows how much theyâve dropped off. Fears have been replaced by laughs, as âslapstickâ stories have spread around Irish football.
One of the many complications is that there can be no doubting Peak6 are a serious business, run very intelligently and successfully by Matt Hulsizer and his wife Jenny. They also have serious ideas about football, given they owned 25 per cent of Bournemouth, held a stake in Roma and have tried to buy St Etienne. Dundalk were a cheaper purchase that were envisaged as a club where Peak6 could enjoy more authority, and display their model of football.
If so, many around their home of Oriel Park fear it might have backfired. The issues started when Hulsizer delegated responsibility to his father, Bill, who was named as chairman.
Hulsizer Snr is emotionally invested in the club, and hugely enthusiastic. He recently gave an interview with local newspaper The Argus, where he spoke of Dundalk as an âextended familyâ and even about winning the Champions League.
Such grand ambitions are just undercut by a lack of knowledge about the basics of the game. It has seen a lot of long-time club figures walk away.
âThe sport is new to the chairman,â Irish Independent football correspondent Daniel McDonnell, recently wrote. âHe was eager to ask questions and tends to think aloud, so reporting all of his remarks with a straight news bat would perhaps be unfair.â
But he has regularly raised eyebrows, and emotions. The stories go from the mundane and absurd to some with major implications.
To start, there were suggestions like goalkeeper Gary Rogers hitting all the corners because he has the cleanest strike of the ball, or centre-half Brian Gartland taking throw-ins because of his background in coaching basketball. Injury-prone US winger Josh Gatt meanwhile revealed in the Irish Daily Mirror that Dundalk had signed him after Hulsizer Snr read an interview he did with ESPN, and called âout of the blueâ, saying: âYou seem like a guy who needs an opportunity and Iâm going to give you one.â
More seriously for supporters, the owners wanted to make Dublinâs Aviva Stadium - about 80km from Dundalk - the new home of the club, or at least play 10 games a year there while supplementing trains for the fan. To get a sense of how this would go down, itâs a bit like asking Liverpool to play some games at Wembley.
McDonnell meanwhile reported in the Irish Independent that there was talk about trying to get a phoneline installed in the dug-out. Former manager Vinny Perth had already sent the hierarchy a diagram explaining the differences between a No 6, a No 8 and a No 10 in terms of midfield positions. Perth, who had been seen as part of a wider succession from the Kenny era and had won a league title, had already endured many headaches over recruitment. There had been tension with technical director Andy Burton, the former Sky Sports reporter.
Burton eventually left the role, but was followed by Perth in August of this year. He was just the most high-profile of many with long-time Dundalk connections to leave. Reports in Ireland suggested Perth had declined to follow guidance from above for the Champions League qualifier against NK Celje. Either way, defeat sealed his sacking.
Perthâs replacement, Italian Filippo Giovagnoli, had never had a senior role and mostly worked in junior football in the US. He canât take the bench against Arsenal because he does not have a Pro Licence.
And yet Giovagnoli has guided Dundalk to the group stage, and earned a lot of respect around the club. His tactical gameplans for European games have been perfect.
Even Giovagnoli, however, doesn't know whether he'll have a job at the end of it. That alone reflects some of the other complications with judging Peak6.
Peak6 ensured everyone was 100 per cent paid through the pandemic when other clubs were taking pay cuts.
The â¬3m that comes from European competition is all the more crucial to that, and helps balance the books in a situation that remains so uncertain with no supporters.
âOur owners have been hugely supportive of the players, of the community, of the staff in general during the Covid crisis,â Connolly explains. âI donât believe there was ever a risk they were going to abandon player contracts or staff in general. Our owners deserve huge praise for that.â
The club as a whole deserve praise for their work in the area through the pandemic. They have paid for an oxygen machine at one of the local nursing homes, paid for hand sanitiser at another four, and regularly called all their season ticket holders to make sure they were OK or needed anything done, such as picking up groceries.
âListen, thereâs no point putting yourself down as a community-based club but then doing nothing to back it up,â Connolly says.
This, above anything else, is one of Dundalkâs great virtues. It is something that has remained constant, and almost represents an ideal as to what Irish clubs - or any club - should be.
It is a reality that has only been emphasised by tragedy. In late July, hugely popular groundsman Harry Taffe took his own life. He was 58, and viewed as one of those figures who just makes a club what it is.
âWe have had a very, very difficult season in a number of ways,â Connolly explains. âWhatever about the football, we lost Harry to the absolutely brutal disease of suicide and it has affected everybody within the club. If you go through our story from 2012, Harry was an integral part of it all, as a volunteer, fund-raiser, groundsman, security guardâ¦ everything. As we grew and developed, Harry was a huge part of that. Heâs going to be hugely missed.â
A fixture on a stage like this is seen as a tribute to him, and there is some hope from the story.
Harryâs son, Shane, has been adopted as one of the wider backroom team as the clubâs videographer.
âHe goes to all the games, and itâs great for him if he continues on that.â
The wider story of Dundalk is meanwhile about the question of what an Irish club, or what any club in countries outside the elites like Arsenal, can be.
This was something that drove Peak6 in their initial acquisition. It all comes amid a backdrop of dysfunction in Irish football, and huge upheaval in the governing federation - the FAI - after the departure of chief executive John Delaney amid a series of controversies.
It says much that this match doesnât really drive Dundalk. It is almost a bonus, where Giavognoli will have to play a defensive game disconnected from their general style.
Much bigger is the match against St Patrickâs Athletic this weekend. That is about getting back into Europe, and going through it all again.
The hope, however, is that itâs with a few less ructions.
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