“It’s time to engage with fans again”

AUTHOR: James Rogers – @JamesRogersie

In a week of drama for Dundalk FC one almost footnote to all that was going on was the news that Fred Spencer had left the board of the club. While that will have little impact on day-to-day matters around Oriel Park, it means that of the 10 people who faced supporters when the new ownership group led by PEAK6 met fans in the Youth Development Centre back in February 2018, only one remains: David Samhat. That includes the departures of then manager Stephen Kenny, club Chief Operating Officer Martin Connolly and incoming CEO at the time Mal Brannigan. Amongst the others no longer involved from that gathering just over three years ago include former chairman Mike Treacy, his vice-chairman Mike Hughes and San Francisco-based investor Jordan Gardner. Change happens in any organisation but it is alarming how much the strategy around the club has altered in a relatively short period of time.

These days it is effectively the Bill Hulsizer Show, with the 78-year-old having been entrusted with the chairman’s role by his son Matt – the owner and founder of PEAK6 who has visited the ground just once since acquiring it. While the initial investment group at least faced fans to hear their views and take their questions, Bill Hulsizer has done no such thing. He would probably argue why should he but given the dramatic change in direction and strategy since then it’s perhaps only fair that fans are kept in the loop somewhat. Let’s look at some of the promises made on that night back on February 4th 2018 and how they compare to now.

Asked why the group had come to Dundalk, Gardner said: “I think there are just so many things that are just so incredible that we have discovered about this club. For me it’s about having fans, volunteers, sponsors – people who are genuine about this club and that was what was very attractive about this club and we are very excited to basically build off what Andy (Connolly), Paul (Brown) and Stephen (Kenny) have done.”

In the interim period there has been little regard for fans with almost zero communication from the club owners who would have moved ‘home’ matches to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin had they had their way in recent years. That goes against Brannigan’s promise that the club would “become a focal point for the town”.

Many volunteers – described subsequently by Gardner as “the backbone of the club” have also been treated poorly and walked away and, while the club are doing well on the sponsorship front right now, they have also alienated a number of long-time sponsors who had been there through thick and thin.

The strategy on the field has also changed. Upon his arrival, Brannigan promised PEAK6 would bring stability on the field with longer-term contracts but there has been a huge u-turn in this regard of late also with one year deals now once again the norm.
Brannigan said at the time: “I think it’s essential to have two things, the first is that the players feel they know there is work here on a continuous basis and that we will invest in them.

“Also that from our perspective and the manager’s perspective that he knows who he is working with over a period of time rather than an annual basis because it must be very hard to try to rebuild a football club and a football team every single year when you’re losing your best players to other clubs and clubs overseas.

“We want to give stability to the manager to be able to have a sustainable football club going forward.”
Treacy also said at the time that players would not be parachuted into the club without a manager’s consent but this has happened on numerous occasions in recent years.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the lack of communication since that night. Gardner, who still has football interests in Denmark, said: “It’s important that we are not absentee owners. That doesn’t work with other clubs. We’ve seen what works and we’ve seen what doesn’t and being here on the ground is important.”

Admittedly Covid-19 hasn’t helped in the last year but as the great Matt Busby once said: “Football is nothing without fans” and Dundalk’s owners haven’t treated theirs with much consideration.

It’s not too late to talk to supporters, inform them of the current direction, get them engaged and make this partnership work.
Of course, there are things that fans have no rights to know but small matters like who is managing the club is surely a legitimate question. Taking the best part of three days to announce departures that were obvious last weekend did little to add to the owners’ reputations.

Ultimately, PEAK6 might be a dirty word in Dundalk right now but what is the alternative? Mistakes have been made, plenty of them in fact, but Dundalk as a club need their American investors right now and the hope of that initial meeting needs to be restored. It’s time to engage with fans again and make supporters “an integral part of the club” again as was initially promised and planned.

Further reading