Saturday 10 December 2016

Dundalk ready to 'transform landscape of Irish football'

Kenny determined to make historic breakthrough by beating Legia Warsaw in play-off for Champions League golden ticket

Published 17/08/2016 | 02:30

Chris Shields keeps his eyes on the ball at the Aviva Stadium as he and his Dundalk team-mates prepare to face Legia Warsaw this evening. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Chris Shields keeps his eyes on the ball at the Aviva Stadium as he and his Dundalk team-mates prepare to face Legia Warsaw this evening. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

This is much more than a League of Ireland occasion.

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Tonight's meeting of Dundalk and Legia Warsaw is a hugely significant Irish football event.

If it represents the first half of an 180-minute tie that ends with Stephen Kenny's charges entering the group stages of the Champions League, then it will rank up there with anything that an Irish sports team at any level has ever achieved.

Don't scoff at that notion.

In an era where the lines between the haves and have-nots in European football are clearly defined, and at a time where the domestic game has a lot of problems that it needs to address, the fact that a team assembled from scratch four years ago is knocking on the door of the biggest club competition in the world game is truly astonishing.

Think Iceland at the Euros without the detailed long-term plan that made that possible. For an established operation like Legia Warsaw, the habitual champions of Poland, reaching the VIP area of the Champions League is the promised land. They haven't crossed that threshold in 21 years.

Words cannot do justice to what it would mean to the unlikely contenders representing a town in Ireland's smallest county.

With the hype comes a raised bar of expectation. Everything that happens over the next week has to be put into the context of where the border club have come from.

Massive

The Tallaght date with BATE Borisov in the previous round was a massive game, but they had to win it for that point to really hit home.

This is slightly different. Over 26,000 fans have purchased tickets in advance because they realise it's a major deal, and the walk-up should guarantee a lively atmosphere in a venue that is renamed the Dublin Stadium by UEFA for the night.

Dundalk had volunteers in over the weekend to put coloured stickers on seats to distort the seating pattern which spells out Aviva on the seats.

League of Ireland operations are always selling, so it's a rare treat when the magnitude of the event draws curiosity from new markets.

Dundalk left-back Dane Massey gets that point because his introduction to senior football on his doorstep was the only other time that an Irish club reached this final hurdle.

Shelbourne-Deportivo in 2004 is a reference point that rings a bell with a wider audience. The 16-year-old was playing his schoolboy football with Cherry Orchard but had never paid attention to the local game.

"That was my introduction to the league," he admits. "I went with my father. From that, I went to a couple of League of Ireland games myself.

"Our goalkeeping coach Steve Williams was in goal and we often ask him about the night and his experiences of it. That's one that everybody remembers, and hopefully this will be another one."

Goalkeeper Gary Rogers was with Drogheda then and in the early stages of a career that has peaked in his later years. At 34, he gets the context.

His CV includes Dublin City, a club that no longer exists, and their collapse in 2006 made the Meath man contemplate a return to GAA. He played a couple of National League games for the Royal County under Colm Coyle before a full-time contract at Galway took him back to soccer.

This run has captured the imagination in his locality, though.

"It's strange," he says. "Meath people are Gaelic football-orientated. But people I don't even know have stopped me, saying they tuned into the BATE game and were wishing me all the best."

Kenny emphasised that point yesterday by stressing that all four provinces are represented in his dressing-room. He wants the grassroots football people in their respective communities to take pride in this story too.

Media outlets from further afield have tuned in as well, and Kenny was keen to assert that their run is what the competition should be about.

Amid strong suggestions that UEFA is ready to appease the unhappiness of the super clubs by guaranteeing that 16 of the 32 lucrative spots will go to the top four leagues from 2018 onwards, the Dundalk boss is conscious of trying to strike a blow for the little guy.

"The wealthy clubs trying to become wealthier," he said, "Smaller clubs can become marginalised. There's even been talk of excluding certain countries from the Champions League.

"As champions of Ireland you should have the opportunity to go in and compete with the champions of other countries. You shouldn't just limit someone and say 'Well they'll never be any good because they can only get 1,500 or 2,000'. You have to have the capacity to grow.

"Champions League football could transform the landscape of football in Ireland. Obviously, there's a long way to go before we do that."

Probing from the audience brought Kenny into bigger picture discussion. But he admitted that, privately, his thinking has been dominated by the minutiae of studying Legia's approach.

In his view, the Polish champions are about pace and power, whereas BATE Borisov were a more technical opponent. It's an extremely tough task but, in his opinion, Dundalk can pose them problems if they pass the ball well and perform to their potential.

Nerves are understandable, yet he feels there are characters in his group that rise to the occasion.

Stephen O'Donnell, his captain and man of match against BATE, was cited as an example. Calm execution of the game-plan ensured they scaled that intimidating hurdle.

More of the same in their adopted home can set up a trip to Poland with realistic hopes of securing the golden ticket.

Dundalk v Legia Warsaw, 7.45 RTÉ 2/BT Sport 3

Irish Independent

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