You are the manager of Irish Premiership club Loughgall having won promotion by winning the Irish Championship in 2022/23. Before we talk about this season’s campaign, how do you reflect on the journey towards achieving top-flight football for the club?
“I am immensely proud of my seven years in charge of the club, and it has been an extraordinary journey during that time before we even talk about this season.
“Year on year as a club, we have improved in all areas from our facilities to our playing squad.
“Winning the Mid-Ulster Cup in 2020 was a phenomenal success for us after reaching two finals before.
“In addition to that, getting to the last four of the Irish Cup as a lower-league side was another achievement that we were all very proud of. Then, we managed to top that all off by winning the Championship title last season.
“That success was the culmination of years of hard work and continual progression from everyone at the club.
“You are only as good as the people around you and I am fortunate to have a fantastic coaching staff and a supportive board.
“We recognise that as a club our catchment area is small given the area, we are based in, but we use that to our benefit and have created a close-knit group across the club and the local community to help drive us forward.”
What were the pivotal moments of that promotion-winning campaign of last season?
“Looking back, we played Warrenpoint Town in the first fixture of the season. They had just been relegated from the top flight and were favourites to win the title so for us to beat them 2-0 at home, on the opening day, was the perfect platform for our season to progress from there.
“Of course, there were twists and turns along the way, but we went on a winning run of around 10 games after that win against Warrenpoint which set us up nicely as the campaign progressed.
“The winter period of December and January was a tough period for us, and we had a few blips in our results before we faced Warrenpoint Town again on Valentine’s Day.
“We defeated them again and that win was pivotal for us in terms of our momentum because we did not look back after that game.
“We truly believed that we could win the title after that victory, and we did not look back even when the league entered the split and we had to play the top seven teams around us.
“In the end, we won the league by six points over Warrenpoint Town so those two games really were vital when you look back now.
“It was a great season for everyone at the club and we relished the opportunity to prepare for life as a top-flight club for the first time since 2007.”
In your first season back in the top flight in 15 years, so far, you have defeated Larne – the current champions – while picking up many positive results to have the club closer to the top six than the bottom of the table. How proud are you of the season so far and what are your aims for the second half of the season?
“Being a top-flight club is full-on and there is not a great deal of time to reflect and enjoy your successes because you cannot afford to take your eye off the ball even for a minute at this level.
“I am very happy with how we have adapted to life in the top flight so far because it was important for us to be able to handle defeat and move on quickly from any setbacks while keeping our focus on winning games and playing our way.
“I am loving the opportunity to test myself against full-time clubs such as Larne, Linfield and Glentoran. They are all giants of the Irish game, and it is fantastic for a club from a catchment area as small as Loughgall to be competing against them.
“Going forward into the second half of the season, we are determined to stay in the division and prove that we are no one-season wonders.
“We do not get ahead of ourselves by any means but I believe that we have a group of players who deserve to stay in the Irish Premiership but it is up to us to consistently show that between now and the end of the season.”
As a footballer, you represented clubs such as Glenavon, Dungannon Swifts and Loughgall – the team that you now manage. How do you reflect on your playing career in the Irish League as a whole?
“I thoroughly enjoyed my playing career, and I was fortunate to be able to play in good teams alongside quality players at each of the clubs that I represented.
“I have great memories of my career especially from my time at Glenavon when we finished 2nd in the Irish League and qualified for European football where we went on to face Kilmarnock of Scotland.
“I am extremely proud to have experienced domestic football and European football in my career while winning a few things along the way.
“I loved every minute of it both on and off the field because I made many friends during my playing career who remain close friends to this day.”
Was moving into management something you had always planned post-retirement?
“It was certainly something that was in the back of my mind without it being an overriding ambition.
“The opportunity to remain in football was appealing and the way that my route developed was that I went into coaching and management happened while I was still playing.
“I was playing for my local club Annagh United when our manager left, and I was asked to step up – along with two other senior players – and manage the team until the end of the season to help the club out.
“We agreed to do that, and I ended up staying as manager after that for a couple of seasons during which we won promotion to the Irish Championship – the second tier of the Irish League – and then kept the club in the division even with limited resources.”
When you look back now, was working at a club that meant so much to you in your first job as a manager, the perfect grounding?
“Absolutely. You need to learn quickly in management, regardless of what level or which club you are working at.
“Annagh United being my club added to that desire to learn and succeed and thankfully we were able to do that with promotion to the second tier, staying up and also by reaching a couple of cup finals even if we didn’t go on to win them.
“We also had some big results in cup competitions against teams such as Glentoran and Glenavon who were in the top flight so we always punched above our weight.
“Looking back, I am thankful to everyone at the club for trusting me with the job and giving me a platform to progress.”
Finally, Dean, what do you hope to achieve as a manager in the years ahead?
“My full focus is on Loughgall and the rest of the season ahead.
“You can never look too far ahead or plan a career in professional football. It does not work that way because if you start looking ahead to the future then you can take your eye off what is happening in the here and now.
“I want to strive for improvement with Loughgall and enjoy what we have achieved so far and what we want to achieve in the future because I believe that we have a special group of players at this club, and we want to continue our progress to date.”