From the brink of extinction to history makers, Dundalk FC are writing new chapters in one of Irish football’s greatest ever stories. Gavin McLaughlin charts the Lilywhites’ incredible European saga.
Not content with being the first League of Ireland side to pick up a point in a European competition with a 1-1 draw against AZ Alkmaar in Holland, Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk FC followed it up by rewriting the record books again in Tallaght on Thursday night as Ciaran Kilduff came off the bench to score the only goal of the game against Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Can you remember what you did for your 28th birthday? No, neither can I. Kilduff, however, will have no such problems in the future.
Five months after fracturing two bones in his back, the striker was christened the ‘Hero of Holland’ following his equaliser against Alkmaar, a goal of such importance, he refused to give the match ball back to the referee at full-time.
On Thursday night, Kilduff went home with another ball under his arm, his side-footed 72nd minute winner swelling the Dundalk coffers by an extra €360,000.
His personal story is just one of the fascinating aspects of 2016’s latest footballing fairytale.
It’s fair to say that many observers outside of Dundalk would have expected this European odyssey to have fizzled out by now. Progress to the group stages was seen as a remarkable enough achievement in itself, but picking up points and qualifying for the Last 32? Come on lads, that’s just being greedy.
However, those who are familiar with this magnificent group of footballers, and their genius manager, know better and as surreal as this may sound, there wasn’t an overriding sense of disbelief when the Latvian referee blew the full-time whistle in South County Dublin on Thursday.
“The lads with the three little birds on their chest deliver – week in week out. Doubts simply don’t exist about their ability or temperament on the big stage.”
A continental adventure that began with a less than impressive 1-1 draw against FH Hafnarfjordur at Oriel Park in July has gathered thundering momentum with each passing tie. David McMillan and Daryl Horgan excelled in the return leg in Iceland as Dundalk drew 2-2 and went through on away goals.
It was backs to the wall stuff in Belarus next time out when Paddy Barrett and Andy Boyle were forced to work overtime to stop BATE Borisov from delivering a knockout blow in the first leg. That defensive grit was replaced by attacking flair in the second leg as Dundalk, with Horgan, McMillan, Chris Shields and Patrick McEleney putting in stellar performances, sent the Belarusian giants spinning out of the Champions League and leaving questions marks over their future for the first time in almost a decade.
Legia Warsaw at the Aviva Stadium was Dundalk’s next test and with captain, Stephen O’Donnell, dictating play, The Lilywhites looked assured against the Polish champions. Unfortunately, the same can not be said about German referee, Deniz Aytekin, whose poor decision to award a penalty against Boyle led to the Poles drawing first blood before they added what turned out to be a killer second in the dying stages.
It was Dundalk’s performance in the the return leg, in front of 30,000 fanatical supporters in the white-hot atmosphere at the Polish Army Stadium, that seemed to prick the consciousness of the wider public with Robbie Benson’s stunning goal featuring on highlight reels around the continent.
Benson, who played with UCD in the First Division last season, has been instrumental in Dundalk’s campaign, scoring the third goal in the win over BATE and completing all but one of his passes – a ratio of 97% – in the 1-1 draw in Warsaw.
Things may have taken a completely different route if his overhead kick went under, instead of just over, the Legia crossbar in the second-half of that game, but as the Athlone man alluded to afterwards, chasing Europa League progress, rather than taking a chasing in the Champions League is a much better fit for Dundalk.
Drawn in Group D against Zenit St Petersburg – winners of the competition in 2008, AZ Alkmaar – the highest rated team in Pot Two, and Maccabi Tel Aviv – ranked higher than a Feyenoord team that beat Manchester United on Matchday One – Dundalk, on paper, have no right to have achieved what they have achieved thus far.
Rated 359th in UEFA’s club rankings before a ball was kicked, and with a coefficient of just 2.590 – Zenit have a rating of 93.216 – Dundalk are – by some way – the smallest club in the competition, operating out of the smallest town in the competition, with the smallest budget in the competition.
Club officials often tell of the shocked reaction from opposition clubs when they learn that there are just three full-time employees working at Oriel Park. In contrast, AZ Alkmaar has 160 on the payroll.
A lot has been made of the €6 million plus in prize money that Dundalk stand to win from their exploits; a game changer for a League of Ireland club, but chicken feed to the likes of Zenit, who sold the Brazilian striker, Hulk, for a reported €55 million in the summer.
However, in spite of structures and stadiums, resources and reputations, Kenny’s players have shown that they deserve to be operating on this stage and in their two Europa League games to date, Dundalk’s 11 players on the pitch have proven to be better than their illustrious opponents. Their club ranking as of today? Two hundred and twenty seventh, a jump of 132 places!
In their opening game at the ASAF Stadion, Alkmaar only took charge of proceedings when O’Donnell was dismissed and, even then, they couldn’t put the game to bed; Dundalk hanging in manfully until Kilduff struck late on.
On Thursday, Maccabi Tel Aviv entered the fray in Dublin with a team made up of 11 internationals and a playing budget between €20-25 million per annum yet they left with no complaints, pointless after two games and bottom of the group.
The man entrusted with that budget is former Barcelona and Manchester United forward Jordi Cruyff, Maccabi’s sporting director for the past four years.
It is somewhat ironic that a quote from Jordi’s father, the late Johan Cruyff, appears as a prelude to the opening chapter of a new book, dedicated to Leicester City’s incredible English Premier League win. It could easily apply to Dundalk’s European run.
“Why couldn’t you beat a richer club? I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.”
Nail on the head, as always, Johan.
Dundalk fans have watched Ciaran Kilduff score two famous ones.
Gavin McLaughlin is the sports editor of The Dundalk Democrat and the author of two books about Dundalk FC. Follow on Twitter: @mclaughlingavin