Dundalk Gaels force rising
By John Harrington
As you enter Dundalk from the south, the blue and white flags festooning the houses, estates and businesses along the Dublin Road, Ardee Road and Carrick Road and all the way to Pairc na Gaeil on The Ramparts let you know you're in Dundalk Gaels territory
What’s seldom is wonderful, and everyone associated with the club is revelling in the experience of contesting a Louth Senior Football Final for the first time since 1992.
Seeing those colours appear everywhere almost overnight was a real pinch-me moment for Niall Lambert.
He was full-forward on that ’92 team that lost the County Final to Clan na Gael after a replay, and ever since, in a variety of different roles, has striven to get Dundalk Gaels back to another one.
He played for 20 years, has managed a number of club teams, toiled on the club’s executive committee, and is currently a senior team selector. So to finally see the Gaels back in a County Final is a very special feeling indeed.
“It's unbelievable,” Lambert told GAA.ie. “It's amazing the number of people that have come on board since we got to the Final.
"You're there working away for years and years and you nearly feel as you're doing it on your own when you're one of the fellas looking after teams.
“But then all of a sudden the good will is just serious. Our traditional areas are just plastered with flags, it's great.
“It's hard to believe it's 25 years, it really is, because we've had some very good teams and a lot of very good players gone through the system.”
Dundalk Gaels haven’t won a county title since 1952, but their territory in the south of the town has always been fertile ground for Gaelic Games.
In fact, there are very few areas in the town that aren’t. Dundalk is also known as a soccer strong-hold, but, as Lambert points out, they have a justifiable claim to be the hottest melting pot of Gaelic Games in the country too.
“There's a misnomer out there about Dundalk,” says Lambert. “Yes, there's a lot of soccer in Dundalk, but there are nine GAA clubs in the town which people forget, two of them hurling clubs.
“Nine clubs in a town like Dundalk is unique, really. I wouldn't think there's any other urban area of an equivalent size that would have that number of GAA clubs in it. Like, Navan has two. Drogheda has four or five.
“But there's nine in Dundalk, so it's quite unique. Dundalk would have a huge sporting legacy with the greyhound stadium, the horse-racing stadium, the soccer club, rugby club, GAA clubs. There's a huge interest in sport in Dundalk.”
Harnessing that interest is the important thing, and that’s why Lambert has been such an invaluable influence in Dundalk Gaels over the years.
He played a key role in putting together the well-organised underage structures that have kept the club competitive and now brought them to within one win of a long-awaited county senior title.
“I was in Dublin for 10 years and moved back to Dundalk in 1994,” he says. “While I was in Dublin in played with the club and along with a group of fellas would have travelled up and down for training and matches.
“When I came back in '94/95 we seemed to be going through a bit of a lull at underage levels at U-10 and U-12. So myself and a guy called Dick O'Callaghan got involved and we just started building it up.
“The team that's there at the present time, there are a number of guys who we started off with at that stage. The likes of Derek Crilly, Eamonn Kenny, Stephen Faulkner, Jamie Faulkner, David McComish.”
Dundalk have been something of a ‘nearly-team’ in recent years. Since 1992, they’ve contested seven county semi-finals, including a replay, and won none of them.
This year’s semi-final against Naomh Máirtín was their third in fourth years, and another defeat would have been hard to stomach.
In the end, they won it by a single point – the same slender winning margin they’ve enjoyed in every championship match they’ve won this year.
They’ve shown a lot of mental fortitude to make it to sunday’s County Final, and that’s the quality Lambert prizes more than any other in a football team.
“Everybody looks at their own club in a certain light,” he says. “You're always hoping and there have been plenty of false dawns so I just hope this isn't a false dawn.
“We'd like to think we've got a chance. You're always hopeful and you're always looking at U-10, U-12, and U-14 teams and players that you'd have to you're looking to see if they'll stick with it.
“And if they stick with it will they have the talent and the mentality to push on? Players always have a certain amount of skill and ability, but it comes down to their mentality as well, their attitude.
“That's what it takes to succeed. Do you have the discipline and mentality to do it? That's really what you're looking for.
“You can do as much work as you want at underage and get as many players through. But it's what they do when they're there, when opportunity knocks.”
Their opponents on Sunday, Newtown Blues, have won more Louth Senior Championships than any other club in the county.
This is very familiar territory for them, whereas it isn’t for the Gaels.
Based on the respective form of both teams so far this year and the calibre of opposition they’ve overcome to get to this Final, the Gaels are more than capable of winning the match.
But there’s no doubt either that their relative inexperience of the big day is a potential variable that could tell against them.
“I just have to go back to my own experience of playing a County Final in 1992,” says Lambert.
“We lost after a replay and, if I'm being honest, when I look back some of us definitely got caught up in the whole razzmatazz. The Artane Boys band was there for the Final and we thought this was great!
“When you talk about having the right mentality and attitude, can fellas handle that?”
If they do handle the occasion and win their first county senior title in 65 years, then those blue and white flags all over the south of the town won’t be taken down this side of Christmas.
And for men like Lambert, it would be a very sweet reward for all those hours, days, weeks, months and years of effort given for the cause of Dundalk Gaels.
“It would be unbelievable, unbelievable,” he says. “Look, come here, I'm not naive enough to think we deserve it or anything like that. You just have to go out and things have to work out for you on the day.
“Newtown Blues are fully entitled to try to win it as much as the Gaels are.
“They're going to be trying to win it and putting their best foot forward because they've got a very proud legacy. Over 20 championships, they're the kingpins of Louth football and they will feel that once they get to a final they're going to win it. That's just the mentality that they have.
“What would it mean to us to win it? I just think of all the people who have worked so hard for the club over the years. Guys like Joe McNally, Danny Culligan, Gene Rice; the list is just endless.
“I would just think of all the people who have tried over the years and it hasn't happened and this would be a fitting reward for all of those people.”