Dramatic end yields historic result - Kilduff equaliser gives heroic Dundalk deserved point on group stage debut
AZ Alkmaar 1 Dundalk 1
In the aftermath of another thrilling Dundalk evening, Stephen Kenny was on message.
"For the people in Ireland, this was important for us," he said. "To show that we didn't just qualify and say 'that's it'. That's not it for us. It doesn't have to end here."
His players continue to raise the bar, and their comeback with ten men to shock AZ Alkmaar and nab an 89th-minute equaliser is their latest entry to the list of great Irish performances in Europe. They are building up quite a catalogue of their own.
Granted, the League of Ireland champions had their rough moments at the AFAS Stadium, and it looked as though they were going to be the architects of their own downfall courtesy of a sloppy concession and a red card for skipper Stephen O'Donnell until Kenny utilised his bench to find the energy that produced the break for Ciaran Kilduff's famous leveller.
The first point secured by an Irish team in the group stages of European competition is worth another €120k, more than the return for winning the domestic title. But Kenny has always given the impression that what he craves is the respect that he believes this team is due.
He has always believed in their technical ability, but the method of seeing out nine punishing minutes of injury-time with ten men called on another set of attributes.
"AZ looked like they were going to get a second goal a couple of times but players came from nowhere to make terrific challenges and a lot of players put their body on the line," he said.
"We've won back-to-back league titles because players are willing to do that. While we have a skilful and technical team, you can't win anything without having that determination to try and fight for each other and they showed that tonight."
It was a combination of grit and simple football quality that rescued Dundalk from the dead.
They had fallen behind to a 60th-minute goal from Stijn Wuytens, a brave header that was followed by a lengthy delay.
Gary Rogers had raced needlessly from his goal to meet a punt forward from Rens van Eijden and he collided with the Belgian after he got the connection to put his side ahead. Wuytens lay flat on the turf and there was no celebration as panicked team-mates called for attention. Some were in tears. He was stretchered off to applause from all four sides of the AFAS Stadium.
Fortunately, he soon regained consciousness and was taken to hospital with heavy concussion. In the aftermath of the goal, it was Dundalk that were unsteady. Their task stiffened when O'Donnell made a daft challenge that yielded a second yellow card; a first half caution was harsh.
AZ appeared to be cruising towards the three points and a goalline clearance from the exceptional Andy Boyle kept Dundalk in it. Kenny worked the bench in search of inspiration, with Robbie Benson, Chris Shields and Kilduff all facing a challenge to quickly get up to speed.
They were central to the equaliser although it was the invention of Daryl Horgan - 'the best player on the park' according to Kenny - that set the wheels in motion with one minute of regulation time remaining. Shields made a lung-bursting run to collect his pass before getting taken down at the edge of the box.
After a delay due to scrimmaging in the box, Horgan curled in a dangerous delivery and Kilduff rose highest to find his target with a bullet of a header. He savoured the moment after a year where fractured vertebrae left him confined to a brace and fearing the worst for reasons that went beyond football.
Dundalk deserved their point. Certainly, AZ boss John van den Brom had no complaints.
"I was not surprised," he said, "They're not a typical British team. They try to play football. In the first half, they were better than AZ with their short combinations and they had more of the ball than us.
"The only time we were better was after the goal and against ten men."
Still, the 800 travelling fans did have reasons to be nervous in the first 45. Alireza Jahanbakhsh struck the post in the second minute, with Kenny rightly predicting that Dundalk's positivity would lead to difficulty when the Eredivisie outfit's front four broke at pace.
Just before the interval, a Fred Friday goal was disallowed. An incorrect offside call.
Otherwise, Dundalk were quite comfortable, with Horgan's directness posing issues and he might have opened the scoring.
The near misses prompted fears that this would be a tale of regret.
But this special side has a wonderful way of taking control of its own destiny.