Lilies look to shine in Euro spotlight
Published 13/07/2016 | 02:30
As one European campaign ends, another begins.
For the club stars of Irish and Icelandic football, the time to shine is now. Tonight's Oriel Park meeting of Dundalk and Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjaroar (they are commonly shortened to FH for a reason) kicks off a potentially lucrative Champions League campaign.
There is a topical edge in that the national side of both protagonists featured in France, with Irish exploits paling in comparison to the extraordinary Icelandic story. The challenge for their respective champions is to try and emerge from the shadows and make their own kind of history.
Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny stressed yesterday that the Louth club are conscious that they are flying the flag, even though there is no evidence of events at the Euros having a positive trickle-down effect for the Airtricity League. Domestic crowds have fallen this summer.
"People always find an excuse not to go," said Dundalk winger Daryl Horgan with a wry smile. "For us and those who follow the league, we want to do well.
"The manager has said we are representing the league and Ireland in Europe's biggest competition so we want to do ourselves justice."
As with Ireland, the entire Icelandic Euros squad was made up of players based abroad.
The difference is that 21 started their senior career in their local league, a contrast from the seven ex-League of Ireland members of Martin O'Neill's 23-man panel. That is still a leap from previous major finals.
The Icelandic stat would suggest that strengthening their clubs is a fundamental part of the process that brought them onto the international stage.
In this neck of the woods, the league is one wing of the association as opposed to a fundamental part of the spine.
A season that has failed to capture the imagination should be presenting serious questions about the future direction.
European matches are the occasions that can temporarily put the league into the mainstream and boost the coffers in a way that local business cannot.
That's why the Dundalk players were so devastated when they lost to BATE Borisov 12 months ago; they really believed they had the ability to achieve something special.
This Champions League hurdle has game-changing ability. Progression would more than double their guaranteed cheque from UEFA, with €1.2m the magic number.
It would also secure them at least two more ties; a place in the third round of the qualifiers comes with the cushion of a parachute into the final Europa League play-off.
As an unseeded team, Dundalk feared drawing a side from BATE bracket again and, at first glance, FH were a kind option from the seeded half.
But Kenny insisted that the visitors are a very capable opponent with strong technical ability.
"They've won their league seven times in the last 12 years," he said. "they are quite expansive. "There might be periods in the game where we don't have the ball and that's a little bit alien to us."
Horgan was similarly respectful. "This is a side who know how to play and win in Europe," he stressed. "BATE had been in the group stages but you can't go into any game thinking this is the easier one as you will be turned over.
"In Europe, the gaps are small. Some of these teams in the second round will make the group stages. So we have to be right at it."
A week's training in Portugal and a return of 11 goals in three games since the summer break has put Kenny in good form, although Dundalk did make defensive errors in a 4-3 thriller against Longford last week.
He does have a fully fit squad and is desperate for his three-in-a-row chasing group to announce themselves on the European stage.
"We have midfielders like Daryl, Patrick McEleney, Stephen O'Donnell, Ronan Finn, players I think so highly of," he said. "Traditionally you would have a physical element but these players, first and foremost, are very skilful. There's no point in me talking about it, though. We have to get the right result to back it up."
The second leg will be broadcast on Eir Sport but no Irish broadcaster was willing to foot the bigger bill for showing this evening's 3,000 sell-out.
Dundalk know they must win their way into the spotlight.