Conversation Number Two

I didn’t know Dean Arrowsmith before I started appearing on the Town End Podcast. What I learned pretty quickly is that ‘Pingu’ loves Dundalk FC. Loves Football. LOVES Wrestling.

It’s an international break. Ireland are back in action and with that comes all the questions, opinions and hot takes on Stephen Kenny’s reign as the manager of the Senior International side.

Maybe you’re in the Kenny camp, maybe you think he’s doing the best he can with what is on offer to him. Maybe you’re in the opposition camp where results like the 1-0 defeat away to Armenia are a sign that he is a man out of his depth. Maybe, you have a foot in both camps. I asked Pingu what he thought of the current situation.

“I think people are starting to turn in favour of Kenny aren’t they? Or at least they were until this weekend, but it only takes one bad result to bring all the detractors back out. In terms of the football they’re playing, I think it’s the best football we’ve played since the first Mick McCarthy reign or the early Brian Kerr era.”

“Overall he’s doing the best job he can with the tools that he’s got at his disposal. We’ve had a lot of the ball but we don’t seem to have that attacking threat. Irish teams of the past who would have been playing atrocious football have had a goal threat with the likes of Robbie Keane or even Shane Long. We’re just lacking that one player who can scrape us through games like the Armenia game and get us a result.”

Social Media can be infuriating at the best of times but after an Irish match these days, the instant reactions depending on the result can be nauseating. It feels like any criticism of Kenny’s tenure is labelled as Anti League of Ireland or you’re seen to have an Anti-Kenny Agenda. Any praise of Kenny is framed as the small band of LoI fans in the country sticking it to the barstoolers and ferry hoppers who refuse to go watch football on their doorstep so are therefore not real fans. Are we approaching a middle ground where Kenny is allowed to be criticised if there is a bad result or performance?

“In his first year, during COVID, it looked like he had assembled one of the strongest Irish squads we’d seen in five or six years and then with COVID and injuries he didn’t really get that squad together. That first year he had absolutely zero luck on the player front and on the staff front so it was absolutely right, I think, to say give him time even though the results weren’t good. But I think he’s past that now and, number one, there has to be performances and number two, international management is a results business so I think Saturday against Armenia was the first game where I think it should be alright to criticise the result, not the performance, but the result because that is a game we should be winning.”

“Kenny isn’t going to be under any illusions, he knows that has all worn off now, he’ll expect criticism. There are people around the country who don’t follow League of Ireland football who can’t wait to stick the boot in.”

“It’s past the point now where we’re saying ‘he’s a League of Ireland man, give him time.’ It’s not put up or shut up time but he’s two years into the job and I think we have to be fair in our analysis.”

So how can he succeed in this climate? What is going to be seen as a success? Can he succeed in a world where the game after losing to Armenia, the PRESSURE IS ON according to the papers?

“Realistically he’s going to have to qualify for a major tournament. If he doesn’t qualify for the Euros I think that will be the end of the Kenny era which would be a shame. There seems to be a togetherness in the Irish squad that maybe hasn’t been there since that first McCarthy run or under Kerr. When we’re talking about the Kenny era we’re looking at performances and results but we’re not looking at how excited these lads are to be in the Irish squad. He is building something like he did when he came to Oriel”

That first Kenny season at Dundalk. Just can’t get away from it at the moment, can we? There are parallels between what is happening with his Ireland squad and how they started slowly, very slowly, but then the squad grew and developed, and the results started to come, and success followed. Whether he achieves success as the National team manager remains to be seen.

Who else have we been comparing to that first Kenny season in Oriel? Oh yeah, the current crop. How excited is Pingu about what is being built in Oriel right now?

“We had a period of time where the community aspect of the club and the sense of identity was gone. Bit by bit I feel like that’s coming back and in 2013 a lot of that was driven by the team and the players and I think you can see that happening again now. Maybe, like you said, the comparison to that 2013 team is unfair because we might all expect them to go on and win the league next season…but they might!”

“What you see now with the current squad is that they’re trying. They’re not blowing teams away but they’re trying to play good football. The atmosphere seems like it’s coming back too. I think some of the fanbase were spoiled by the success that we had. Last year was a reality check for a lot of people and I think people are appreciating this a lot more because of that, the excitement is there. Which is where I would compare it to Kenny’s first season. It seems like as the season goes on there is something building, the excitement is building.”

“The minute Stevie O’Donnell got the job I knew we were getting good football. Now it’s just a matter of sticking with it and waiting for the success that should follow.”

Don’t worry, I’m still not getting carried away.

While I don’t want to get ahead of myself, the positivity around the club and the fan base is growing. You may or may not know that I enjoy a post-match beverage in the bar in Oriel after the games. Stevie O’Donnell and some of the players from time to time have come in for a chat before they head off. Efforts like this by the staff and the players haven’t gone unnoticed and they are a sign of the growing connection between the fans and the squad.

“That’s what makes Dundalk FC unique. Having that access to the team, building that connection building that culture, it makes you feel like you’re a part of it. It feels like your opinion matters, even if it doesn’t, but there are very few clubs around that would do something like that.”

“I watched a documentary, years ago, about David Beckham the year after he moved to Madrid and he was having his food paid for in restaurant by the restaurant owner. Now, I don’t think any Dundalk players are getting their Isle de France paid for but it’s one of the only clubs where you’re idolised by the people of the town.”

“I’d meet up with Brian Gartland if I’m at home, we’d go to Costa in the Marshes and it’s like going for a coffee with David Beckham or someone like that, he’s getting stopped all the time and people are looking for photos and autographs.”

Pingu is being modest about how many people come up to him in the Marshes and tell him that they love the podcast. Anyone who knows him, or who has spent any time with him, knows how important Dundalk FC is to him. Anyone that knows him knows that he lives in Chicago. How difficult was watching everything unfolding last season in the town from afar?

“Dundalk, to me, is home. And Dundalk will always be home and a big part of that is the football club. To be employed by Dundalk and to work there for the time I did was the pinnacle of my career to date. Last year was very, very difficult to see it going the way it was going. I felt like the cub was being ripped from the community and because of COVID and other things the community couldn’t even put up a fight for it. I’d love to be able to come back and be involved in the club again. If Martin Connolly is reading this, I can send him my CV, no problem.”

Martin, I’m also available for work. Just putting that out there.

I had to finish our conversation with a very important question.

If you turned up for Hell In A Cell with a brutally torn pectoral muscle and Stevie O’Donnell was in charge, do you think he would insist on you performing? Or would he give you the night off?

“Stevie, 100%, would be telling you it’s not that bad. You can have your time off after. And you know what? If Stevie asked me to do it I would do it”

I think that says a lot.

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