‘I’ll never have one single regret that I haven’t gone away to England’

YOU’D BE HARD pressed to find a more consistent player in the League of Ireland than Sean Gannon.

The esteem in which he is held by his colleagues throughout the Premier Division is summed up by the fact that he has featured in the PFAI Team of the Season for the past six consecutive campaigns.

And indeed, if you were to discuss contenders for League of Ireland Player of the Decade, his name would surely have to come into the conversation.

And this year has been as good as any other. In addition to his by now customary place in the team of the year, he was one of three nominees for PFAI Player of the Year for 2019, alongside Shamrock Rovers’ Jack Byrne (the eventual winner) and Dundalk team-mate Michael Duffy.

In addition, in his six seasons with Dundalk, Gannon has been part of a title-winning team in all but one — 2017, when a Sean Maguire-inspired Cork City prevailed.

It’s been quite a rise for a player who, like many in the early days of Dundalk, was by no means considered an obvious star in the making.

Having come through the ranks at St Kevin’s Boys, he made his senior debut with Shamrock Rovers as a 19-year-old in early 2011 during the Michael O’Neill era.

Yet Gannon never fully established himself with the Hoops and moved on to a Liam Buckley-managed St Patrick’s Athletic side ahead of the 2013 campaign.

Though he would finish the season with a league winners’ medal, the short-lived Pat’s experience would prove similarly frustrating to his Rovers stint. The more experienced Ger O’Brien was preferred at right-back, with Gannon sometimes played out of position in midfield.

It was away from his native Dublin that the youngster finally found a footballing home. Stephen Kenny was going into his second season in charge of Dundalk, with the club yet to establish themselves as the dominant force in the domestic game, when he took a chance on Gannon, who turned out to be one of his most astute signings.

The player credits the current Ireland U21 boss as a major influence in his transformation from someone on the periphery of squads to an unquestioned starter for the league’s strongest team.

“I came through the ranks at Rovers, broke into that first-team squad,” he tells The42. “When I was at Pat’s I didn’t really play as much as I’d like.

“I’ve still got a great relationship with Stephen. I always will, because I know how close I was to him and how much of a bearing he had on my career.”

Stephen Kenny brought Gannon to Dundalk in 2014.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Kenny may no longer but managing the Lilywhites, having departed at the end of the 2018 campaign, but he left the side in good health. Former assistant boss Vinny Perth has since taken charge of the first team.

“He’s made small changes — his own stamp, his own style,” Gannon explains. “But the core of everything we do is not an individual person’s way. It’s the way of the group, the way of the club, Vinny is obviously leading it. He’s the one pushing us to be better.

“You know that if you come to our team, you’re going to have to dedicate everything to it if you want to keep the success going. Vinny has really kept people at it and pushed them to be better and really developed the whole thing again.”

Consequently, 2019 has certainly been up there with Dundalk’s best years under Kenny. As Gannon points out, they were “a penalty shootout away from five trophies”. The title, the League Cup, the President’s Cup and the Unite the Union Champions Cup were all secured, with the one domestic blip coming in the FAI Cup final against Shamrock Rovers at the Aviva Stadium, as Dundalk suffered the agony of a defeat on spot kicks following a tightly contested contest.

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“It didn’t go our way on the day and Shamrock Rovers won,” he recalls. “Rovers are a very good team, just as ourselves and Cork were neck and neck for so long.

“I’ve no doubt that Rovers are going to be neck and neck with ourselves for the foreseeable future. But that happens in every league. It’s never easy to win. You’re always going to have people pushing — competition and rivalries.

And while it was a near-perfect campaign for Dundalk domestically, Europe proved to be a disappointment. 2016 — when they got as far as the Champions League play-off round, before making it into the Europa League group stages and being in contention to progress further until the very last matchday — remains the benchmark.

The Lilywhites’ subsequent efforts will inevitably always be compared to that remarkable season, and they ultimately could not quite hit those heights this time around.

After edging Latvian side Riga on penalties in the Champions League first qualifying round, the Irish team were then well beaten by Azerbaijani outfit Qarabag, losing 4-1 on aggregate. They endured similar woe in the Europa League amid a 4-1 aggregate defeat to Slovan Bratislava.

Dundalk endured a disappointing European campaign in 2019.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

These results prompted criticism with some suggesting they had gone backwards after the comparative success of three years previously. However, Gannon unsurprisingly does not subscribe this theory, suggesting the club are just as strong as they were in 2016.

“Europe this year didn’t go the way we would have liked. I think we got some really tough draws against good teams. It just didn’t go our way. You can read into these things too much. We got knocked out by a Slovan Bratislava team who were very competitive in their group with Besiktas, Wolves and Braga. 

“So we can over-analyse these things, but going into this season, we definitely want to improve in Europe. The mentality of the club, the owners and people in charge want to give back with the group stages of the Europa League or Champions League or whatever we can get to. It’s a good mentality to have and it’s ambitious and that’s what we need to be. We’ve done it before and we feel that Irish clubs are going in the right direction. There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t do it again.

“We came up against some good teams and we had some chances. Things didn’t go our way. Maybe, if we’d taken some chances we had, if we had defended a bit better, things could have gone differently.

“If we hadn’t have had such a strong squad, the season probably would have gone differently, because we needed everyone in our squad. We’ve got two players basically for every position.”

Moreover, Gannon’s own career could easily have panned out differently. In the early part of his time at Dundalk, he was getting linked with a move to England. In 2015, he even turned down the offer of a trial with Millwall, telling The Herald at the time: ”There was never anything set in stone, but there was an offer there to go on trial to Millwall.

“I just felt it wasn’t right, I had only had one full season of football here, with Dundalk, and I wanted more of that. I wanted to play in as many games as possible and develop as a player, so I really just wanted to stay at Dundalk and have another season here. The chance might come again, it might not, no one knows.

“But I just felt, after I had thought about it, that for me, at this stage of my career, and with what we are trying to achieve here, that Dundalk was the best place to be.”

Dundalk celebrate winning the 2019 Premier Division title.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Now 28 and very much settled with the Lilywhites, a cross-channel move seems unlikely, and the star’s overriding feelings on the issue haven’t really changed.

Some people, including Gannon himself, suspect he made the right call. While many ex-League of Ireland players have enjoyed considerable success in Britain, plenty have found life difficult there. Had the Dundalk star moved across the water, at the very least, it seems unlikely he would have had anything comparable to those incredible Europa League nights to look back upon, and he almost certainly would not have accumulated so many team and individual accolades.

“One thing I definitely don’t have is regrets,” he says. “When I went to Dundalk first, I wanted to prove to myself that I could play in the league. If I nailed down a spot in a good team, then I could play in the league.

“I’ve always wanted to enjoy my football and enjoying my football has been a huge part of why I do it. If I’m not enjoying my football, there’s no point really.

“I’m very happy with my career. The memories that I have — I’ve played in Europe every year, big games, cup finals, won league titles, played with some great players. I’m very happy with how things have gone.

“Going to England wouldn’t be the be all and end all for myself. You see players go away and it doesn’t work out for them. They come back and have great careers here. It’s not the be all and end all really. It’s not a necessary thing for me.

“When I look at my career and how things are going, I’ll never have one single regret that I haven’t gone away to England or anything like that. I’m playing at a high level here in a great league-winning team. I’m very happy with my football and how things are going, and that’s the main thing for myself.

“Any individual success I’ve had I owe so much to my team-mates, because they’re the ones that push you every day, make you a better player and the coaching staff, they’re the ones that are demanding high standards.”

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