Showing his colours . . . Des Dunleavy
The saying goes that behind every successful man is a good woman, and it would also appear wherever there is success on a sportsfield these days, there is a Donegal man hanging around somewhere in the background.
Dundalk FC and their exploits on the soccer fields, especially in Europe, is one of the stories of the Irish sporting year.
SSE Airtricity champions for the third year in-a-row and within two points of a place in the last 32 in the Europa with two games still to play, the champions have already reached dizzy heights no other League of Ireland club has ever climbed too.
Inver native, Des Dunleavy, who grew up in Mountcharles, would not for one minute claim that he is the man behind Dundalk's rise to those heights.
Manager Stephen Kenny (who resides in Donegal) is the man rightly credited with working the oracle that has transformed the fortunes of the club on the playing pitch.
But there is no getting away from the fact that since the appointment of Dunleavy to the club’s inner circle Dundalk has experienced one of the most dramatic change in fortunes.
The club’s owners Paul Brown and Andy Connolly had been on to Des Dunleavy, the local bank manager in the Permanent/TSB branch in Dundalk, for years to join the club’s board.
But Des had always resisted their overtures and fobbed them off by saying that he would not join up until he retired.
On the night of his retirement party in mid-November 2012, Paul Brown and Andy Connolly cornered the Donegal man and reminded him of his long standing promise.
“It was 4 o’clock in the morning. It was a Saturday, and we were in Kennedy's, a local hostelry, beside Oriel Park.
“The party was going well when Paul and Andy got around me. They told me that they were going the following morning to meet Stephen Kenny in Derry, and they were hoping to entice him to Oriel Park to manage the team,” explained Des.
“I have to confess I didn’t know who Stephen Kenny was or anything about him. But they also said that they wanted me to be the club’s representative at the FAI.
“As the saying goes, the rest is history. Stephen Kenny was duly signed as manager and I agreed to represent the club at the FAI.
“I think there was something like eight players on the books when Stephen took over as manager at the beginning of 2013, and he slowly set about building a team.
“Dundalk had just survived by the skin of their teeth in the Premier Division at the end of the 2012 season, before Stephen’s appointment.
“In 2013, at the end of Stephen’s first season, Dundalk finished second in the Premier Division.
“They won the league in 2014 and and they have won it the last two seasons as well, 2015 and 2016. They also won the double of league and cup, last season and they lost this season’s cup final to Cork City.
“I let Cork win because they are captained by a namesake of mine and fellow Donegal man Johnny Dunleavy,” says Des as he laughs.
“It’s phenomenal success and it is all down to Stephen Kenny and a very professional setup here at Oriel Park. We also have a very good general manager, Martin Connolly, who does a brilliant job.
“Paul Brown, Andy and Connolly are shrewd businessmen and they run a tight ship. Dundalk’s turnover is in the region of €800,000 to €900,000 and wouldn’t be the highest in the league.
“Shamrock Rovers would have a much higher budget. Our’s is up considerably this year, because of the run in Europe, but so too, is our income.
“So far we have grossed in the region of €7 million from Europe and while it is expensive with high travel and accommodation costs and bonuses and other expenses, the net return from the €7 million is in the region of €3 million.”
NOT ONLY LINK
Des Dunleavy is not the only Donegal link with the high flying Airtricity League of Ireland champions. Captain of the team Stephen O’Donnell, though Galway City born, has strong Donegal links. His father, PJ, is a native of Dungloe and from a family with a long and proud GAA tradition.
And manager Stephen Kenny, a native of Dublin, lives in Fahan.
“Stephen is a great leader and a great captain and he is a having a brilliant season in Europe. He is also a big fan of the Donegal senior footballers, something I only realised a couple of years ago when I took him to one of Donegal’s big games in Croke Park, and I was amazed how well he knew all the Donegal players. He was as enthusiastic a Donegal supporter as there was in Croke Park that day.
“Stephen Kenny moved to live in Donegal when he took up the Derry City manager’s job a number of years ago and he has remained there ever since.
“His two eldest children were born in Dublin and still have still got slight Dublin accents. But his other two were born in Donegal and have Donegal accents which is great to hear. So yeah you could say we have a small colony of Donegal interest in the club.”
Since first turning up as Dundalk delegate at the FAI, Des Dunleavy has risen through the ranks and currently sits on two high powered national committees of the FAI and is one of the movers and shakers in the Association.
He is on first name terms with FAI chief executive John Delaney and counts former Irish International, Liam Brady, as a good friend.
“My relationship with Liam goes back long before I joined Dundalk and the FAI. It dates back to when I moved to live in London, after doing my Leaving Certificate, in 1971, to take up a job with the Midland Bank.
“Liam had joined Arsenal around the same time and we were two young Irishmen living and working in London. I was an Arsenal fan and we met socially and became friends. That was when professional footballers were able to go and have a pint and socialise just like everybody else.”
Through Liam he met and became friends with Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary, John Devine and Pat Rice, all young Irish players with Arsenal at the time. He later met and became friends with former Celtic and Arsenal player and current TV pundits, Charlie Nicholas and Niall Quinn.
“I’m currently on the finance committee and legal affairs committee along with two good Donegal and Finn Harps men, Alex Harkin and John Campbell.
“I was on the development committee when I joined the FAI first in 2013. But the maximum number of committees you can serve on at any one time is two, so I had to give up my position on the development committee.”
Des also acts as the FAI liaison official for UEFA delegations that visit Ireland for big matches.
The former St Naul’s Gaelic footballer and London Senior Championship winner with Tír Chonaill Gaels is the one tasked with catering for and looking after the European officials from the moment they land in Dublin airport until they depart again.
“For example this week I will pick up the match supervisor and the referee and his officials for Dundalk’s game against FC Vaz Alkmaar from Holland on Thursday night, tomorrow (Wednesday) at 3.30 pm.
“I will then transport them to their hotel and then take them out to Tallaght to the stadium, to do their inspections and then back out again for the game on Thursday evening.
“I will pick them up again at the hotel on Friday morning and take them to the airport for 11 am departures.
“It can be a quite demanding job but it is also a very enjoyable job. It is a great way to meet people from other countries and to make new acquaintances and friends.”
Dundalk, who are joint second in their group along with Maccabi Tel Aviv, play AZ Alkmaar tonight (Thursday) in Tallaght. Their final game is away to Maccabi Tel Aviv in two weeks’ time.
Zenit St Petersburg, the runaway leaders of the group, are home to Maccabi Tel Aviv tonight and away to AZ Alkmaar in their last game.
If Zenit, as expected, win their two games, all Dundalk need from their two games is two points and they will be looking at a place in the last 32 in the Europa League and more big games and more delegations for Des Dunleavy to entertain.