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Interfering in selection and demanding a phone in the dugout - how Dundalk's American dream turned into a nightmare

Dundalk's US takeover was supposed to help reassert their position as standard-setters in Irish football, but behind-the-scenes acrimony and absurdity is sending the club in another direction

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David McMillan sums up Dundalk’s reaction to their Champions League exit. Photo: Sportsfile

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Dundalk’s current chairman Bill Hulsizer

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Dundalk’s current chairman Bill Hulsizer

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Stephen Kenny and Mike Treacy celebrate the 2018 Premier Division title success. Photo: Sportsfile

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Matt Hulsizer watches the Phoenix Coyotes ice hockey team in 2011. Photo: Getty Images

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Perth was strong on offering Hoban (pictured) a new deal but there was resistance over terms. Photo: Sportsfile

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When Jordan Flores couldn’t agree a deal, there was a feeling he shouldn’t play in Europe. Photo: Sportsfile

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Vinnie Perth. Photo: Sportsfile
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David McMillan sums up Dundalk’s reaction to their Champions League exit. Photo: Sportsfile

On June 28 of last year, Dundalk went to Tallaght and scored a victory which was the decisive moment in their fifth League of Ireland title win in the space of six seasons.

What the jubilant travelling support didn't realise was that this was a night which some around the club now view as the turning point of their recent history.

The presence in the ground of Bill Hulsizer, the father of Matt, the billionaire co-founder of investment firm Peak6, was viewed as further evidence that the club's US owners had become emotionally invested in the Dundalk project.

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With the stars and stripes emblazoned across his T-shirt, Hulsizer Snr stood out in the crowd, and was introduced to various club officials and some journalists before a later trip to the dressing-room where there was a photo with the victorious team.

The assumption was that this was a holiday and the welcome mat was rolled out in the way you would expect if a powerful backer sent his parent to be entertained.

What became apparent in the months that followed was that this was more of a fact-finding mission for the genial Florida-based figure in his late 70s.

By the end of a season, which finished with an FAI Cup penalty shootout defeat to Rovers, 'Matt's father' had become 'Bill' and was immersed in day-to-day activities long before his formal appointment as chairman on December 28.

Gallery 8
Dundalk’s current chairman Bill Hulsizer

 

Indeed, he had favoured the treble-seekers boycotting the Aviva showpiece on account of the furore around the suspension of midfielder Chris Shields which was ultimately traced back to an admin error inside the club.

Whispers

There were whispers at this point over whether the quirks of the fresh face might turn out to be somewhat problematic.

Dundalk lifers had listened to warnings when the consortium led by Peak6 took over the club in late 2017.

Scepticism was borne out of the belief that a private equity firm would view Dundalk as a quick hit and head for the hills if they found that 2016's Europa League run was hard to replicate.

Previous horror stories relating to League of Ireland clubs and overseas investors were cited as evidence, the tales of faceless backers with questionable pedigrees who promised money that didn't materialise or possibly never existed and left a trail of debt behind.

Dundalk's backers are from another bracket altogether. In business terms, Matt Hulsizer and his wife Jenny are the real deal, the brains who have built Peak6 into a successful venture with the smarts to thrive rather than suffer in a recession. The company will do well this year.

They socialise with the owners of elite sport teams in their Chicago locality and Peak6 looked to expand their portfolio in that area. Considering they owned 25 per cent of Bournemouth, held a stake in Roma and tried to buy Ligue 1 side St Etienne, Dundalk was a bargain-basement experiment, but the novelty it offered was a greater degree of authority.

Still, the expectation was that it would be out of sight and out of mind.

Hence the appointment of Peak6 employee Mike Treacy as chairman, and the placing of other reps on the board or in admin roles. But the Hulsizers quickly proved they were not absentee owners with fixtures piped into the company HQ and the family taking trips to Ireland to check out the surroundings.

Delegating responsibility to his father was suddenly bringing Dundalk business very close to home, and this was interpreted as a major positive.

Across European trips to Riga and Baku for Champions League ties last year, club officials spoke of the Hulsizer enthusiasm, and how it should be reassuring to those who feared this would be a cold-hearted fling.

Of course, they wanted to make money, but if this was also keeping a beloved family member happy - "a new lease of life" was a term used - then this was no ordinary investment. There were unquantifiable sums to be factored into any blunt assessment of profit and loss.

Now, there's a view forming around Oriel Park that it would be better if the money men were more detached.

Vinny Perth's departure as manager was greeted with surprise externally, yet internally it was just another twist in a traumatic period that has led to a host of volunteers walking away and staff fearful about the club's trajectory, wondering if they are now trapped in an alternative reality.

The latest development is that Martin Connolly, the only Irish-based board member, is set to vacate his seat and has submitted his resignation as company secretary. He remains the chief operating officer, but is considering his future there.

Italian Filippo Giovagnoli (49), who has never managed at senior professional level, arrived in bizarre circumstances earlier this week, and one of his first tasks was repeatedly insisting that he would not tolerate boardroom interference in team selection.

Out of nowhere, the dominant club of the last decade, the rising-from-the-ashes story that provided Ireland with its next senior manager, has now become the backdrop for what one insider has succinctly described as an "omnishambles".

How?

* * * * *

Perth started to clear his desk in Oriel Park two days before the Champions League defeat to Celje last Wednesday week.

He knew the writing was on the wall, and has told people he should have walked earlier.

When you're fighting a battle over whether a phone line should be installed in the dugout so you can take calls from the US during games, then it's probably time to go, even if you fend off that threat.

If Perth's side had prevailed in that Aviva penalty shoot-out against Rovers, he would have joined Jim McLaughlin in the record books as a treble-winning boss. He couldn't have envisaged being out of work nine months and just 10 competitive games later.

Gallery 8
Dundalk’s current chairman Bill Hulsizer

 

Perth was a Peak6 appointment, with Treacy in strong favour of maintaining continuity when Stephen Kenny exited as part of John Delaney's hastily constructed succession plan. The feeling within 24 hours of Kenny's departure was that the culture which had sustained a trophy-laden era needed to be maintained.

Giving Perth the reins was accompanied by the promotion of former players Ruaidhrí Higgins and Stephen O'Donnell to roles as assistant manager and opposition analyst respectively. John Gill was also brought back to the club to comply with Pro Licence badge requirements while Perth gained the qualifications.

But the plan unravelled. O'Donnell was viewed as a manager in waiting but was coaxed away to become St Patrick's Athletic boss last August, while Kenny returned to look for the highly rated Higgins in April when Covid-19 brought forward his promotion.

Perth was the driver in bringing in Waterford manager Alan Reynolds, but the combination of Perth (44), Gill (56) and Reynolds (46) was a drift from the original plan to maintain a continuous link from the Kenny era.

Higgins was sorely missed. Sources have indicated that Higgins relished the chance to be reunited with Kenny again because he enjoyed working under his style of management.

Perth was previously a confidant for squad members, but he did suffer with some of the awkwardness that can accompany a number two stepping up to number one.

His relationship with certain senior players did decline, with the stripping of the captain's armband from Brian Gartland a bone of contention with the defender who was also a part of Peak6's succession plans in an off-field business capacity. Senior dressing-room figures also felt the manager was too concerned about media coverage.

But the major issue for Perth surrounded recruitment and contracts and how that began to affect the dynamic in a dressing-room that had traded off its strength and unity.

When Hulsizer Snr got involved, there was an understanding on the ground that part of his brief would be sourcing prospects from the US collegiate system to see how they would fit into the Irish ladder.

It was also anticipated that he would look at infrastructure (a steering committee exploring that area has stalled).

The sport is new to the chairman. He 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.

Passing observations that goalkeeper Gary Rogers should take corners because he is the cleanest striker of the ball, or Gartland should take throws because of a background coaching basketball, were batted away.

A last-minute charge from the tip-off after falling behind to Rovers in the Cup final led to an innocent query around whether players should have a code word they could shout that would prompt a similar Braveheart-style charge at a point in games.

All of these eccentricities were harmless enough when it seemed as though there was no actual input in the football decision-making process.

But those stories are regaled with another tone now. And there's a debate around how he suddenly got into the position where he could test acceptable barriers.

Kenny would never have tolerated the oddities, but then he was such a revered figure around the club that the new owners were never going to take him on.

The outside view was that winning the league should have given Perth credit in the bank, yet he also owed his big opportunity to Peak6.

There is sympathy in-house formed from the outlook that he was an extremely hard-working employee who did try and shield players from external interruptions.

Yet the less generous take is that he was malleable because of insecurity around his position.

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Stephen Kenny and Mike Treacy celebrate the 2018 Premier Division title success. Photo: Sportsfile

 

There were things going on throughout his tenure that he perceived as a threat to his authority.

He didn't see eye-to-eye with Andy Burton, the former Sky Sports reporter, when he was brought in last year. Perth had the final say on player movements, but his opinion was challenged and Burton was reporting back to the owners.

Negotiations around a contract for top scorer Pat Hoban became a sticking point. Perth was strong on offering Hoban a new deal but there was resistance over the terms from Burton.

Burton argued that a better striking option was needed for Europe and contract offers should be tailored accordingly, but Perth pushed strongly to retain his top scorer and got his way. Hulsizer became involved in the negotiations at a late stage.

Across the course of this week, more than one established member of the 2019 group has questioned if Burton's departure had downsides, much as he ruffled some feathers.

"Nobody will agree with me," said one source, "but he kept America away from the dressing-room, and he had a football mind. Vinny thought Andy would try and replace him and Bill wouldn't."

Few tears were shed when Burton exited. Certainly, it was viewed internally as a victory for Perth.

More significantly, Treacy also left at the end of the year, citing family reasons in a statement. Several sources say that Treacy was not afraid to be firm with the incoming chairman.

Rightly or wrongly, the view amongst the natives is that his absence has created an unusual dynamic as challenging the elder Hulsizer on a particular issue is complex when his son effectively pays the bills.

Struggles

There is a theory that the struggles around filling the CEO post resulted in America taking a more hands-on approach. Mal Brannigan and Mark Devlin were hired from the UK scene and neither stayed longer than a year.

Throughout the winter, the chairman became Perth's main point of contact when it came to approving pre-season trips and player deals. A direct line was established.

In the absence of any designated recruitment expert on staff, there was increased prominence for Liam Carroll, a locally-based agent for Hoban, Chris Shields, Seán Gannon and a number of other past or present Dundalk players.

Carroll has no role at the club but he was on the plane for the Celje match which raised eyebrows; this gesture was interpreted as a thank you for some assistance he has provided.

It's not unusual for a club to use an agent to activate deals on their behalf if they want a particular player - even if he is not their client - and Carroll has stepped into that void when required by Perth or the board.

Multiple sources have indicated that Carroll merely did what was asked of him by the manager.

What it highlights is that a stated plan to spread the recruitment net wide never really materialised in a coherent way.

A club with those resources should have a designated director for that area, but what transpired was a more scattergun approach.

Gallery 8
Matt Hulsizer watches the Phoenix Coyotes ice hockey team in 2011. Photo: Getty Images

 

Striker Georgie Kelly was allowed to leave for St Patrick's Athletic on loan, but he's effectively gone on a free transfer with his contract up at the end of the year.

If Kelly had made 20 league starts for Dundalk, another year on his deal would have been triggered. It's understood that he was told at one stage that an American striker was lined up to replace him.

Meanwhile, injury-prone ex-USA winger Josh Gatt was drafted in on account of an interview he gave to ESPN. He confirmed Bill Hulsizer was the driver of it.

"He just contacted me out of the blue and said, 'You seem like a guy who needs an opportunity and I'm going to give you one'," Gatt told the 'Irish Daily Mirror'.

When Gatt was signed, he was the subject of a profile piece in 'The Athletic' which pleased the hierarchy.

But he has made a limited impact on the pitch. There have been calls for another signing, English winger Nathan Oduwa, to play more.

When Jordan Flores couldn't agree a new deal there was a feeling he shouldn't feature in the European tie, but Perth picked his own team, with injuries meaning Flores was required.

The manager told pals he believed unhappy squad members or their representatives were registering complaints above him.

A sideshow to all of this was the comings and goings of players from the US collegiate system, an area Dundalk's investors consider an untapped well.

Harvard graduate Taner Dogan was brought in but is now out on loan with Athlone at the bottom of the First Division. Another duo, Dane Lind and German Giammattei, landed from Amherst College in the third tier of the NCAA system.

The Irish Independent contacted an experienced Irish coach working in that sphere in the US who likens the NCAA Division III with junior football at home, and said it would be "very, very surprising" if a player uncovered at that level was anywhere near good enough. Matt Hulsizer is a graduate of Amherst.

There were attempts to secure a move for one of the Amherst arrivals to Athlone to join Dogan - Bill has apparently struck up a rapport with Athlone's chairman John Hayden through league-wide talks - but deadlines had passed.

Perth was patient in his attempts to work harmoniously with the chairman, where others would have taken a harder line.

At one point this even extended to the manager sending a diagram explaining the difference between a number six, a number eight and a number 10 in terms of midfield positions.

Perth has refused to deny that, latterly, there were firm opinions offered on what team he should be selecting. "There was huge discussion at board level about players that should be playing," he told RTÉ.

The lockdown was the point in the road where the influence from across the Atlantic began to enter uncomfortable territory.

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Perth was strong on offering Hoban (pictured) a new deal but there was resistance over terms. Photo: Sportsfile

 

People at the club were receiving calls before and during the behind-closed-doors games, but they weren't getting to the right people and the aborted chats about a phone line in the dugout stemmed from there.

"Vinny allowed this to happen," argues one critic of the manager's role in tolerating a crossing of the boundaries.

But there are supporters of Perth who would contend that he was managing an impossible situation.

Giovagnoli's every move will be closely watched. By all accounts, the board are enthused by him.

"This is only the beginning," said one staff member, in the aftermath of Perth's (left) removal.

"It's the tip of the iceberg," argued another. "This is about control."

* * * * *

In truth, there's another departure that insiders would view as even more indicative of the general climate. Club secretary Colm Murphy, a volunteer regarded as a steadying influence around the club, also took a step back in recent weeks.

The exact reasons for his departure are unclear but he was known to be frustrated by the extent to which a proposed friendly with Celtic in Scotland turned into a farce.

Covid-19 restrictions scuppered plans to go to Glasgow and take on Neil Lennon's side because Dundalk's squad would have needed to quarantine for 14 days upon their return, even though the club were willing to pay for extra tests and do whatever was necessary to make the date.

But the regulations were never going to allow it.

The view on Stateside was that it was important for the brand that the Celtic game went ahead, even if this had implications for their opening league game with St Pat's. Club officials were urged to contact the Irish Government to query the Covid restrictions. There was even a short-lived suggestion that the entire squad could spend their 14-day isolation period in the team's training complex, the Youth Development Centre, with bunkbeds installed for that purpose.

Perth is known to have considered his future around this time. The distracting queries that were naturally dismissed were a drain on all involved.

The idea that the U-19 team would play against St Pat's was contemplated too. Calling the game off was another proposal, but that would have needed the FAI's and St Pat's approval.

This coincided with Georgie Kelly's adieu.

He went for St Pat's because of a desire to work with O'Donnell, yet the theory around the club was that Bill's connection with the Inchicore club's owner Garrett Kelleher may have helped.

Gallery 8
When Jordan Flores couldn’t agree a deal, there was a feeling he shouldn’t play in Europe. Photo: Sportsfile

 

This was another product of remote working and the attempts to get the league restarted which meant there were matters involving Dundalk that weren't immediately communicated to those operating on the ground there because of time difference and other logistical complications.

Kelleher made headlines for his strong criticism of Gary Owens and Niall Quinn, and Dundalk's senior administrator offered his two cents in a strongly worded leaked mail to clubs where Bill said that: "Dundalk and myself have been lied to, stolen from, insulted and disrespected by the FAI."

Around Abbotstown, Dundalk's chairman had already gained a reputation as a combative character.

The approach for Higgins stirred old wounds surrounding Kenny's exit for the Ireland job without compensation. Dundalk fought their corner this time and Hulsizer secured around €40,000 which was good work.

In their dealings with the FAI, the Americans have made it known that they are in better financial nick than the cash-strapped football body. This is true. What emerged from this process was a claim from Hulsizer Snr that the FAI had come looking for a seven-figure loan. The FAI have always declined to comment on how that played out.

Dundalk's chair subsequently said that he had backers - independent of Peak6 - that were looking at funding the FAI's proposed streaming service.

Earlier dialogue had centred around the American side taking part or all of the FAI's stake in the Aviva Stadium.

That was never a runner, but the communication appeared to create confusion that mystified willing dealmakers Stateside.

It is exasperation around the difficulties in trying to do things their way in Ireland which has prompted rumours they might consider their future here, rather than losses which are manageable in their eyes.

Dundalk recorded trading losses of €1.2m in 2019 but that is small change to Peak6 in the context of shares they hold in global companies that could turn over that amount in a day.

What must be acknowledged is that Peak6 have paid their players in full throughout the pandemic, a contrast to what was unfolding elsewhere, and this is a reminder that a well-paid squad cannot distance themselves from blame for their slump much as there have been unsettling occurrences.

More than dozen are out of contract, and vultures are circling. This is where the short-term nature of the Italian job is problematic. Around the League of Ireland, a Dundalk offer was craved but now there's a question mark around the environment.

Rival clubs who feared the border outfit had the muscle to live up to the American commitment to win the league every year simply cannot believe their luck. They are enjoying the slapstick tales that are circulating.

In Dundalk, gallows humour is being used to mask anger and sadness too, a sense of helplessness around how quickly it has all unravelled. Supporters are aghast, but behind-closed-doors games mean they have no vehicle for their concerns other than online forums.

The statement confirming the Giovagnoli news included a quote from Bill that finished with a cheery 'C'mon The Town!', a popular shout from the Oriel Park terraces. It was incongruous in the context of the unease that is now felt. There have been apologetic messages sent back from former board members that are known to be upset by what has unfolded.

Lingered

The idea of the Americans pulling out has always lingered as a prospective nightmare scenario, especially after deflating European results, yet there are wise heads openly debating whether it would actually be the best-case scenario if the current situation doesn't change.

Earlier this week, Simon Blackmore, the club's licensing officer until he joined the list of helpers to walk away, tweeted how a Peak6 representative had once told him that the plan with Dundalk was "to improve their image as football people" so they could invest in multiple clubs.

"Made little sense then," he wrote, "now they are a laughing stock, it makes even less."

Worried staff are wondering if there is any way for their concerns to be heard. "This is affecting people's lives here," asserts one.

Gallery 8
Vinnie Perth. Photo: Sportsfile

 

Will the message be taken on board?

"I look at Dundalk FC as my extended family," said Bill back in a wide-ranging May interview with 'The Argus' that went in a range of directions. Winning the Champions League was mentioned.

"If Peak6 decided tomorrow that we'll sell the club, the club will not disappear. Now, are we looking at selling it? No.

"Don't think about what happens if Peak6 run away. That doesn't matter because Dundalk is here to stay and they will continue to set the standard for the league.

"What I do know is, we're the best team in Ireland right now. And if and when we aren't the best team in Ireland, we have two choices: fire the coach and get new players or sell the team. I would probably say that we'll get new players and try to figure out how to be the best team again because that's our nature.

"There are too many variables at this stage to say exactly what is going to happen regarding the future."

Right now, the wild-card variable is the whims of the owners. And the only standard being set is a new bar for embarrassing self-destruction.

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