Stunning display secures historic victory for Lilywhites
Dundalk 3-0 BATE Borisov (Dundalk win 3-1 on agg)
Published 03/08/2016 | 02:30
As biblical levels of rain fell on Tallaght, Dundalk found the key to their promised land.
Stephen Kenny's side produced a performance from the top drawer to write their names into Irish football history and move within 180 minutes of the Champions League proper.
Whatever happens, they will be engaged in European football until Christmas. Last night, their present came early with sweet revenge over BATE Borisov.
It was earned by a sensational second half display with Dundalk growing in confidence after Dave McMillan opened the scoring before the interval and producing a mature second 45 that yielded the deserved reward.
McMillan grabbed the vital goals but every protagonist was a hero. Four years after they stared extinction in the face, the Louth club have graduated to the top table.
The manner of this win embodied their extraordinary rise under Kenny who took over at the end of 2012 when the border outfit were at rock bottom, lucky to escape relegation from Division One because Monaghan United went bust.
From a blank canvas, he has built a powerhouse. This showing embodied their qualities. When they saw the chequered flag, they didn't take the ball to the corner and hope for the best. Instead, they clinically punished BATE weakness to take control of their own destiny.
Robbie Benson's late insurance strike ensured an emphatic success, a giant killing feat that will genuinely raise eyebrows around the continent.
Labouring on the finances risks taking the focus off the extent of the sporting achievement but the prizes are gamechanging.
They are guaranteed a figure in the region of €5.6m and qualification for the group stages of the Europa League if they lose the next round but Kenny has built belief by refusing to settle for chatter about the minimum return.
After knocking out a side that habitually qualifies for football's most lucrative club competition, Kenny will be telling his troops to believe they can go where no Irish side has gone before.
The Lilywhites are already assured of emulating Shamrock Rovers' achievements in reaching the Europa League group stage in 2011.
They did so on Rovers' patch, with Kenny picking the away dugout at his former employer to mastermind his finest hour.
The Dundalk players were disgusted with their display in Belarus - 'a horror show' as Daryl Horgan described it last night - but they only came away trailing by a goal.
That was the key to this comeback. It took just one piece of inspiration to turn this tie on its head and Horgan provided it before the interval.
Dundalk had hung in there in the early minutes with Chris Shields and John Mountney brought in to add solidity to the midfield.
It was a pragmatic strategy and BATE struggled to play through the black shirts. They were tentative at times and their early chances were created by Dundalk errors in possession.
The loss of Ronan Finn to an injury was a blow but his replacement, Patrick McEleney, sharpened up ball retention.
He also created the first major chance for the Irish side with his crossfield pass controlled expertly by Mountney who went for goal when he might have passed and Sergei Veramko saved.
But Dundalk proved again and, with Martin O'Neill in attendance, the left winger backed up the case that he has the ability to make an impact at a higher level with quick feet and the intelligence to scoop a right footed cross to the far post where McMillan shrugged off the presence of Denis Polyakov to dispatch an accurate header.
Dundalk fans dared to dream. BATE were staring at a nightmare and brought their recent recruit, the prodigal son Alex Hleb, off the bench immediately.
Shields made a series of important blocks but an error led to a quick break that culminated with a slack defensive header from the otherwise solid Paddy Barrett and a right footer from Rios that shaved the post.
From that escape came the inspiration for victory. McEleney was now owning the stage, making the ball stick at every opportunity.
His dart into the box was followed by a dink over a maze of bodies that the inrushing left full Dane Massey sent back into the danger zone where McMillan was in the right place again to divert a header into the gaping net.
"When you attack from the right and your left back is in the box, that's a sign of bravery," said Horgan.
Dundalk were thirty minutes from glory. They hung on when a Hleb run resulted in a tiddler that veered off course. BATE had to fully commit now and sent in the goalscorer from the Borisov Arena, Mikhail Gordeichuk.
But as the heavens opened, they lost the composure that gave them four points against Roma last autumn. They had to go for it, yet that left gaps and Dundalk sniffed blood. Their captain O'Donnell was magnificent.
He drove his team forward and sub Robbie Benson capitalised on BATE disharmony to race through one on one. With a calm finish, he officially started the party. Who knows where it might end.