Monday 26 September 2016

Dundalk travel in search of ticket to the big time

Rogers targets Icelandic away-day focus to set up BATE rematch

Published 20/07/2016 | 02:30

Dundalk’s Ciaran Kilduff was with Shamrock Rovers when they qualified for the Europa League group stages. Photo by Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Dundalk’s Ciaran Kilduff was with Shamrock Rovers when they qualified for the Europa League group stages. Photo by Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

When the playing staff and management of Dundalk gathered yesterday morning for their flight to Reykjavik, it was time to park any distractions and put their eyes on the Champions League prize.

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Planning for tonight's second leg with FH Hafnarfjordur has dominated their working days since last Wednesday's draw in Oriel Park but an away trip can be a very effective way of focusing the mind.

Stephen Kenny's squad train full-time, yet they live in the real world. A break from their day-to-day commitments, whether it be family matters or the sideline pursuits that the modern League of Ireland pro needs to survive, can help the process of readying a group for a significant occasion.

"The away trip can be better for preparing," says goalkeeper Gary Rogers. "This is your sole focus. You're not looking at things going on at home, other jobs you have to do. All your time here is consumed with the game. It helps."

Recent evidence would suggest that Irish clubs can be suited by the opportunity to close the deal on foreign soil.

Progression

Rogers has happy European memories from his stint at St Patrick's Athletic where a remarkable Europa League, run in 2009 under Jeff Kenna featured second-leg results in Malta and Russia that ensured progression.

Three other members of Kenny's panel - Ronan Finn, Stephen O'Donnell and Ciaran Kilduff - were part of the Shamrock Rovers group that booked their place in the Europa League group stage in 2011 by winning in Belgrade after a 1-1 draw at home.

That was the score in Oriel Park seven days ago, with the late concession to the Icelandic champions making disappointment the prevailing mood of the evening.

It was hard to take, but the overall battle offered encouragement to the dressing-room.

The simple fact that Kenny's men are a much better proposition away from home helps; they can execute slick breaks on grass against sides that are attempting to apply pressure.

But the real source of enthusiasm is that, despite being unseeded, Dundalk are taking on an opponent of similar enough ability. At a stage where winning one tie can guarantee €1.2m in prize money and two more European ties, that is a contrast from the standard David v Goliath scenario.

In a strange way, the knowledge that the Louth club might never have a better chance to scale this hurdle added a sense of apprehension to the first meeting.

Read more: Irish teams discover their European fate - but all three need big second leg performances to progress

The hope for the visiting party is that they can shift that pressure onto their hosts this evening; FH are not world beaters but they will be expected to get the job done. A free shot at last year's conquerors BATE Borisov is the prize, with the cushion of a parachute into the Europa League play-off if the Belarusians prove too strong again.

"I'd love to be in the position to be thinking about that," admits Rogers, "Even just to have a crack at getting into the group stages, be it the Champions League or Europa League. . .

"If we can win this game, we know we're going to get a shot at that. There's a lot at stake for everyone at the club.

"But I'd imagine that FH were very happy with the result last week. They're a very good side and you have to respect them. They have plenty of European experience and they know what it's like to go through these ties. If we don't perform, then we won't go through."

Dundalk had the weekend off, whereas FH were in action on Saturday in a 1-1 league draw with IBV that came at a price, with key man Atli Gudnason damaging his ribs towards the end of a game where manager Heimir Gudjonsson rested five players.

Kenny has injury issues too, with Brian Gartland breaking his wrist in the first half last week.

He was due to travel as support to the group and reported to Dublin Airport, where it emerged that the Lilywhites were travelling on a bigger plane than originally planned and would therefore have a longer wait to fly home afterwards due to pilot union rules.

With Gartland scheduled to have a plate inserted tomorrow, the decision was made to leave him behind in case there was a delay.

"He's been a great player for us and the full focus for us is on getting him fit," said Kenny, who will be without the centre-half for six weeks.

His replacement Paddy Barrett did well aside from an unfortunate error leading to FH's equaliser and this will be a major test for the Waterford man.

"I have great faith in him," continued Kenny, "He's been an excellent player here and unlucky not to play more because of the (Andy) Boyle-Gartland partnership.

"What he lacks is Brian's experience but I feel he's really come on from last year mentally. What is great credit to him is that even if he's not in the team, he has kept himself in impeccable condition. I feel that will pay off."

Attack will be the priority for Dundalk, though, with the straightforward state of play suiting their strengths.

"We have to do it the hard way and I believe we can," asserted Kenny. "They will probably offer more than they did in our home leg as they were quite direct but it's all about ourselves and we're backing ourselves - the individual talent and collective talent in the group can unlock the door."

A world of opportunities awaits at the other side.

FH v Dundalk, Live, Eir Sport, 8.15

Irish Independent

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