Eamonn Dolan, 1967-2016
When I first met then Exeter City manager Eamonn Dolan he stopped our interview midway through to give tactical advise to a youth team player. “I knew he was heading off and I wouldn’t get to see him until after his game at the weekend.”
When I spoke to him about seven years later to get a quick bit of background on a Reading player for an article I was writing he was happy to spend almost half an hour chatting all things Reading and Exeter on the phone. I’d actually got his number off a friend, who had bumped into him in the Bromley club bar (where he was monitoring the progress of one of the Reading youth team). He remembered both my friend and me, and made it clear that he would always be happy to spend his time speaking to us.
Eamonn Dolan may not be a well known name in English football outside of Reading and Exeter but he was probably one of the nicest, most passionate men you’re likely to meet and football will be much worse without him.
Forced to retire at the age of 23 due to cancer – the same disease that look his life aged just 48 – Dolan took a number of roles at Exeter City before heading up the club’s youth system and then progressing to manager.
But this alone doesn’t tell the whole story; a story how, along with the Supporters’ Trust, he was one of the key people to keep Exeter City alive and restore the pride of a battered, broken football club.
When Dolan accepted the offer to take over, Exeter were on their knees. Relegated from the League, with debts in the millions and a chairman arrested for fraud. Dolan himself was lucky to still have a job. To save a few thousand, John Russell, the aforementioned chairman, wanted to shut down the youth academy. “Clowns,” Dolan called them. It was the only time I ever saw him get genuinely angry.
Dolan got the job with Exeter, partly because there was no one else. But also because the young group of players he’s spent his career nurturing were very promising indeed. And they would have to be. With no cash, they were needed to form a core of the first team.
Some, like Sean Canham, Matty Bye and Les Afful weren’t quite up to it but gave as good as they got. Others like Danny Clay – a key player in Exeter’s 0-0 draw with Manchester United, faded once Dolan left. But those who did make it reaped six figure sums for the club and the cash from these sales helped spearhead the team’s charge to challenge for the League One playoffs under Paul Tisdale. Dean Moxey, George Friend and Danny Seaborne all moved to a higher level, while latterly Swansea’s England U20 international Matt Grimes and Peterborough’s Tom Nichols all came through the academy Dolan shaped and influenced long after he had gone.
But it wasn’t just the youth team Dolan had an impact on. At a time when St James Park was a miserable place to be around, Dolan gave Grecians fans back their pride. You couldn’t help be moved by his passion on the touch line, sprinting to celebrate with fans and players alike and celebrating each goal like we’d won the FA Cup. The message was clear: here was a manager who was one of us, who understood what it meant to support Exeter. In some respects, City fans have still been searching for that aspect in a manager and have yet to find it in the spiky Alex Inglethorpe or the more cerebral Tisdale.
All this suggests Dolan was the perfect manager for City and at that moment he was. But he was also a man who knew his limitations and his decision to leave for Reading’s youth academy a season and a half after taking the Grecians hotseat was an admission that he wasn’t quite the right man to take the club back to the Football League, and was more comfortable nurturing young players than getting the best out of grizzled veterans.
There was one last parting gift – Dolan created the team that beat Grimsby in the FA Cup first round and subsequently went on to beat Doncaster Rovers and then draw with Manchester United, wiping out the club’s debts in the process.
While Inglethorpe and Tisdale have rightly gained the credit for some of City’s high points, none of their work would have been possible were it not for Eamonn Dolan. Loved at Exeter and hugely well respected at Reading, football is a much poorer place with his passing. RIP Eamonn