'We need to produce the game of our lives' - Kenny
Published 15/07/2015 | 02:30
They have looked on another level to their domestic opponents this season, but Stephen Kenny's Dundalk face the sternest test of their development in Belarus this evening when they encounter a force that operates on another plane.
BATE Borisov, who are named after the local automobile and tractor electronic works in an industrial town with a population of 150,000, stood out as the nightmare draw when Kenny's ambitious group awaited their Champions League fate.
"It's the toughest draw we could have got when you look at the seedings," says Kenny, who admires the manner in which a club that was refounded in 1996 has grown into a regular presence in the group stages of football's most lucrative competition.
Kenny knocked BATE out of this competition when he was Bohemians manager in 2003. But the losers on that occasion were a work in progress at the embryonic stage of a plan to invest in the senior side while building a youth structure with a consistent style of play from the top down that maintained the quality of the production line.
Their endeavours bore fruit. BATE have qualified for the Champions League in four of the last seven seasons, and they're well on their way to a tenth domestic league win on the trot.
The unlikely big guns moved into a brand new stadium last year and boosted the coffers by selling key players to Metz and Malaga. Crucially, their success has been achieved without spending big on imports and prioritising homegrown talent. All but four of their panel are local lads.
Having earned over €40m in UEFA prize-money from their recent exploits, the €1.2m guaranteed to the winners of this tie is small change in their world. Yet the fact that the losers are out of Europe means the stakes are high for the hosts.
"If they lose against us, it'll be a catastrophe," said Kenny. "If they don't get to the group stages it will be a disappointment. They're a top-class team with 14 internationals so we're under no illusions. This is a test, a real test."
There is a quiet confidence in the Dundalk camp, though, a belief that has steadily grown in the Kenny era. They sit nine points clear at the top of the Airtricity League table as they seek to retain the title for the first time in the Louth club's history.
Sometimes, a league medal drains ambition. With this group, it's opened their eyes to bigger prizes.
After holding onto exciting talents such as Richie Towell and Daryl Horgan, Kenny wants to make the most of their key attributes against a BATE side that is used to domestic rivals coming to the Borisov Arena and letting them have the ball. Dundalk will adopt a different mindset.
"We won't have an inferiority complex," said Kenny. "You have to believe in your talent. We have to look to dominate possession ourselves and not surrender it. I've looked at their league games and a lot of (Belarusian) teams let BATE have the ball, defend in numbers and hope for the best. Why would we do that?
"There are times where we're going to be forced back. We're not naive. We can't leave huge gaps either because they've got internationals in their side, they're brilliant attacking down the left side and they have a striker, Vitali Rodionov, who has won over 40 caps. But at the same time, we must try and pose them problems."
BATE have given Dundalk full respect by sending over a member of staff to watch three games.
Their coach Alyaksandr Yermakovich has admitted that Dundalk don't fit in with a popular Irish stereotype.
"Frankly, we expected something a little bit different - a British style," he said. "As it happens, Dundalk have technical guys who can handle the ball. Not many long passes, more so short and medium passes. It's pretty diverse."
Their scouting mission has also coincided with a worrying period of defensive frailty from Dundalk, and they suffered in Galway last week when Andy Boyle was forced off with a calf strain that caused a nervy ending.
Kenny's men did escape with a 4-2 victory, but Boyle is a major doubt for this match and management will leave it late to make a decision, with Paddy Barrett on standby.
In midfield, there is a choice between Stephen O'Donnell and Chris Shields, although it's possible that both could be accommodated. Whatever happens, there will be flexibility in the game-plan. Kenny pointed out that it was the subs that proved vital in a late rally against Hadjuk Split in the Europa League 12 months ago.
After a slight delay in transit and slow progress through Minsk Airport, Dundalk made the drive to the match venue last night to train in familiar weather, with showers falling throughout the evening. Heavy rain and temperatures of just 20 degrees are forecast for the game.
The conditions may be less taxing than initially anticipated, with local press comparing it to Irish weather, but the Kenny knows a special effort is required here to create a major occasion in Oriel Park next Wednesday.
"I think we've had a fearless approach playing against everyone and we need to have that here - and the tactical acumen not to be exploited," he continued. "We need the performance of our lives.
"We have the opportunity to play in the Champions League which we don't look at as a bonus - we've earned the right to play here. It's an honour to represent Ireland but we want to do ourselves justice.
"We believe in what we're doing and we're not going to talk them (BATE) up too much. We're not going to talk about who they've played or the teams they've beaten (a stellar list which includes Bayern Munich, Lille and Athletic Bilbao).
"We're not devaluing ourselves and we'll go out with the intention of getting a result."
His players are enthused by the prospect of testing themselves against a side that's been to places they have only ever dreamed about.
"You have to have confidence and belief if you're going to get anywhere," shrugged centre-half Brian Gartland. "If we want to emulate the success that BATE have enjoyed, well, they had to start somewhere ten years ago so why can't we do that now?"
After this adventure, the Dundalk hierarchy will have a better idea about the road they need to travel.