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Dundalk FC: The Irish Side That Is One Round Away From History

Alex Lynch tells the incredible story of Dundalk FC, an Irish side on the cusp of history.

Dundalk 2016

Most Irish football fans at the club level support Celtic or Liverpool, this is no secret and is something that has gone on for quite sometime. This was most evident when Celtic played Barcelona in Dublin in the ICC a short time ago, with most of the Irish fans in the crowd donning the Hoops shirt. And this isn’t going to change anytime soon, as Celtic have done things that many Irish clubs dream of doing such as winning the European Cup. But despite the fact that this is the case, there have been Irish fans who follow the local teams and the local league. And these fans have been rewarded for their passion, because local side Dundalk FC are one step away from history.

The Backstory

For anyone who doesn’t know, Dundalk feature in the top flight of Irish football called the SSE Airtricity league. This league isn’t one of the world’s best, and isn’t blessed with a lot of money. Most of the stadiums have room for only around 7,000 spectators, and a lot of the games aren’t even on TV in Ireland and feature primarily on the radio. Plenty of the teams only have local sponsors and the exposure that even the best teams in the league gets is limited due to the lack of money and appeal. This reality makes the Dundalk story one of most preposterous proportions and something that no one could’ve expected just a short time ago for a side that once had struggles of their own.

In the 2008 season, Dundalk were in the second tier of Irish football and had lost in the promotion playoffs the year before. The Lilywhites had just blown a 12 point lead in the second tier mostly due to injuries suffered along the way. The injuries persisted and caused Dundalk to lose to playoff winners Finn Harps. But in 2008 tides turned and the second tier Irish side gained automatic promotion by 1 point at the end of the season, en route to the second tier title. But life as a second tier Irish club wasn’t kind to Dundalk (or anyone else) with the highest attendance being just 2,500, which is a stark contrast to what they get these days as Ireland’s top club. Even as Dundalk stayed in the top flight and looked like an established top flight club again, things fell apart.

Just 4 years ago, Dundalk had a disappointing season which saw them fighting for their top flight lives once again. The Lilywhites found themselves in a relegation playoff game against Waterford, and they had just drawn 2-2 in the home leg. Waterford had dominated the match, but Dundalk were able to come away with a very fortunate draw due to some timely finishing. If the Lilywhites hadn’t been able to win the upcoming away match against Waterford, they would’ve been relegated to the second tier of the Irish game once again, and the fortune that they would soon acquire certainly wouldn’t have come their way. They ended up winning 2-0 in the away leg in what was a terrific performance, one that most fans remember even to this day. This is because this is seen as the game which turned the fortunes of Dundalk around for all of the foreseeable future.

The fans see that game this way because shortly after winning the match and staying up, Dundalk hired one of Ireland’s most successful managers—who is still in charge— Stephen Kenny. Kenny had an impressive track record before even landing the Dundalk job, as he was able to win the league title with Bohemians and the second tier with Derry City. He also won the two cups a combined 5 times with Derry City before taking the Shamrock Rovers job. With Shamrock, Kenny wasn’t able to win the title and ended up finishing in 4th, which the club saw as a disappointment. Kenny ended up getting the sack by Shamrock, which is a decision that most fans and people associated with the Dublin based club look back on with regret. This is because of what Kenny was able to do with his next club, which was Dundalk.

Kenny was able to turn around a relegation threatened side and he led Dundalk to 2nd place in his first season. Dundalk have gone even further since then by winning consecutive league titles in fairly easy fashion. The second of the 2 consecutive titles was last season, which was even more special since Dundalk were able to win the FAI Cup and league double. They are at the top of the table this year once again, and are poised for a cup run as well. What Kenny has done has been remarkable for the club, but he’s faced his fair share of obstacles. Some of which include losing last season’s 24 goal scorer and Player of the Year Richie Towell to Brighton and Hove Albion. He also lost star forward Patrick Hoban to League 2 in England, which was another tough blow since he was one of the top scorers for Dundalk.

Dundalk F.C manager Stephen Kenny during the Champions League 2nd round qualifying game between Dundalk F.C and BATE Borisov at Oriel Park on July 22, 2015 in Dundalk, Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Dundalk F.C manager Stephen Kenny has done a terrific job (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

But despite losing some of the star players from recent times, Kenny has done a terrific job being able to replace them with other Irish top flight stars including the likes of Ronan Finn, Stephen O’Donnell, Patrick McEleney, Daryl Horgan, David McMillan and Gary Rogers. These players came from Shamrock, Sligo Rovers, Cork City and Derry City who are all league rivals. This is how the league of Ireland’s transfers often occur, as players usually go from one team to another since most of the time other leagues don’t know about their exploits. All of these transfers are usually free as well, since the teams don’t have the money to go out and buy a ton of players. Despite that being the case, Dundalk still are able to sign some of the league’s best players under Kenny. These players mentioned have all played a huge role in Dundalk’s European success so far, which shows that the League of Ireland’s stars should get more exposure. McMillan is the Champions League’s leading scorer, Rogers is the #1 goalkeeper, and Finn and O’Donnell run the midfield while Horgan and McEleney have provided timely assists great performances as well.

The Road to The Playoffs

Since Dundalk have all of the players they now have, they were able to win the SSE Airtricity League title. Winning the title gave them a second round Champions League qualification tie, which this season saw them face off against Icelandic champions FH Hafnarfjordur. This tie was a very close one from the start, with both teams trying to avoid mistakes and make sure they had a lifeline for the second leg. This was especially the case for Dundalk, who didn’t want to give up any away goals if they could. The Irish side put forth a very good defensive performance and they were rewarded with a goal by David McMillan in the second half. But the lead that Dundalk had only lasted around 10 minutes, as the Icelandic champions found the back of the net in the 76th minute. That would remain the final score, and Dundalk would have to win the away leg to keep their European campaign alive.

They did just that, as the away match against Hafnarfjordur is one that fans won’t forget anytime soon. Since Dundalk lost in the third round last season, one can imagine that the fans of the club would’ve been afraid of that happening again. There was a lot of angst and uncertainty after what was seen as a disappointing result in the home leg. The reality that the Irish champions might lose in the third round again began to set in even more for the fans after FH Hafnarfjordur scored first and took the 1-0 lead in the 18th minute. The Icelandic champions would hold onto the lead going into halftime, with Dundalk having missed some chances in the first half as well. But the Irish champs came out firing and determined to begin the second half, and two impressive finishes from McMillan gave Dundalk a 2-1 lead after the 62nd minute. And after scoring in the 77th minute to level the score at 2, the Icelandic team weren’t able to break Dundalk down again as the Irish side absorbed loads of pressure to win on away goals.

The next round though would prove to be an even tougher task, with Dundalk being drawn against the side that beat them last year, BATE Borisov. The Belarus based side also did very well in the group stages last season, getting results against Roma and Bayer Leverkusen. Most people didn’t bet on Dundalk to stand much of a chance against BATE, and the first game of the tie supported that theory. In Belarus, Dundalk absorbed loads of pressure once again, with Dundalk’s goalkeeper Rogers being forced to make some solid saves. The pressure became too much for the Irish side eventually, and BATE were able to break down Dundalk in the 70th minute. Even though the 1-0 score remained the same until the end, only losing 1-0 in the away leg was seen as a huge success for Dundalk. This is because they never got close to scoring, and for large parts of the game struggled to get the ball out of their own half while having all 11 men behind the ball. Dundalk didn’t plan on having to defend as much as they did, but their courageous effort in Belarus gave them a chance to win the tie in the home leg.

Sergei Chernikof BATE Borisov (L) punches clear from Brian Gartland (R) of Dundalk during the Champions League 2nd round qualifying game at Oriel Park on July 22, 2015 in Dundalk, Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

(Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

They did just that, with one of the best performances that an Irish side has ever delivered in a European competition. They dispatched the BATE defense en route to a 3-0 win that saw McMillan score 2 impressive headers. After being scoreless after 40 minutes, Dundalk were able to get a goal after some great work by winger Daryl Horgan. After that Dundalk were able to absorb chances, and beat BATE on the counter attack with a McMillan header and an awful defensive error gifting substitute Robbie Benson. Pandemonium ensued inside the stadium at full time, with Dundalk going farther than any Irish team ever has in Champions League qualifying.

The next test for Dundalk is Polish side Legia Warsaw, who will certainly be tough to beat. But the Polish side aren’t any better than BATE Borisov, and if Dundalk do to them what they did to BATE they could make Irish football history. They would be the first Irish side to reach the Champions League group stage, and they are already the second to make the group stages of a European competition following Shamrock Rovers in 2011. No matter what happens against Legia, Dundalk are already in the Europa League and have gotten closer to the Champions League than any Irish side. If they beat Legia Warsaw, then the story of Dundalk will become one that no one in Ireland will ever forget because of how far they would’ve come to get there.

Alex Lynch

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