Frustrated Kenny knows European adventure marks the end for Dundalk stars
In this era of summer football, it is actually not that unusual for League of Ireland players to find themselves on a beachside resort in December.
The difference is that they tend to be on a holiday. But the Israeli city of Netanya, a popular holiday home for the natives, is Dundalk’s final workplace in a year that has brought them around Europe and now beyond.
For the vast majority of the group, this is new territory. They didn’t picture sunshine when they extended their campaign until Christmas. It’s safe to say they didn’t see a lot of things coming.
And it’s some of those factors that have created what Stephen Kenny has described as an ‘unusual’ feeling around what is a huge game with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
If Zenit St Petersburg are motivated enough to upset AZ Alkmaar in Holland, Kenny’s side still have a very good chance to make the Europa League round of 32, a feat that would surpass everything else the Philips Sports Manager of the Year has achieved.
Kenny deservedly scooped that gong because he has taken his squad out of their usual environment to rub shoulders with operations that routinely sample group stage football.
But they cannot escape the realities of their regular scene, the imperfections that have left them open to losing key members of their squad.
Andy Boyle will leave after this match to sign for Preston and Daryl Horgan will also be playing his last game for Dundalk this evening too.
Teenage striker Michael O’Connor, yet to make his big breakthrough, has told Kenny that he is signing for Sheffield United. The primary emotion before a huge game should be excitement, but there are other things going on.
“I won’t use the word sadness because that’s not the right word. It’s a little bit frustrating but that’s the way it is,” said Kenny.
“It has been sort of a strange build-up because, in many ways, it’s a little bit unsettling with a lot of players out of contract and trying to deal with that.
“Some players will inevitably leave and even if we get through they won’t be involved. Maybe that’s the way of the world but you can’t just be dispassionate about that and shrug your shoulders. It’s an unusual situation.”
For Kenny, it’s bittersweet because the European run showed a wider audience that his players had the ability which he always knew was in the locker.
“Andy Boyle is a funny one,” he says, with a wry smile. “He’s 25 now and he was our greatest hidden secret.
“Then he gets into the international squad and everyone looks at him closely and says, ‘Jesus, he is really good’. I wanted Andy in the squad. I wouldn’t have been thinking that I don’t want him in the squad in case he gets a move.
“He’s been outstanding and probably good enough to get into that international squad two years ago. I feel that way.”
In the ideal world, Dundalk would have tied their assets to longer contracts but, in January, they didn’t have the security of knowing that a €7m European run was coming.
Promising players are advised by their representatives to sign one-year deals as it leaves them free to UK sides that are reluctant to pay fees to Ireland.
“If we’d made Daryl any sort of offer (longer-term deal) a year ago he wouldn’t have signed it, and certainly with Richie Towell before that,” sighs Kenny. “Unless you went with offers that are too good to turn down. But where does that go? Other clubs have pushed the boundaries out and paid the consequences.
“The club adopted a cautious approach because they felt it was the right thing they were doing but there is always an element of risk with that.”
The sliding doors moment was probably in Iceland back in July when Dundalk were staring at the possibility of an exit at the first hurdle to FH. They were 45 minutes from exiting and slipping from sight but a stirring second-half period which included a pair of goals from Dave McMillan changed the course of the year.
“It would have been an absolute failure had we gone out,” said McMillan yesterday, “And it could have happened so easily. That was a game we had to crack and it was definitely a different kind of pressure to now. No Irish team had got through that round in a long time, and I think we just got stronger from there really.”
Their own expectations grew and McMillan suggested that departing at this stage now would feel like failure too having taken four points from their opening two Europa League matches.
“It would be horrible to be going back on Friday thinking what could have been,” said the front man. “To not have picked up a point after the start would be massively disappointing. If we win and go out, I don’t think I’d see that as a failure because we’d have achieved a lot. But the final aim is to get through.”
Kenny (pictured) disagrees with any mention of the word failure at this juncture. “I never coach players on how to speak, I would encourage them to speak their minds freely,” he said,
“But I wouldn’t agree with that. Our next matches (after taking four points) were against Zenit home and away. We’re disappointed we were below par against AZ. That’s left us needing to pull out an unbelievable result. I wouldn’t consider it to be a failure if we haven’t progressed.”
The anecdote illustrates how the dressing room has even come to dispute the definition of failure. Boundaries have been redefined. Kenny feels his side are better prepared than they were for the deflating Tallaght loss to AZ with injuries clearing up to improve the quality of training session. Chris Shields should start, while Stephen O’Donnell is fit to come off the bench.
“This can be a special moment in our careers,” says Kenny, who will only inform his players of developments in Holland if Zenit are cruising to victory – a scenario that would make a score draw enough for the visitors.
“When these matches come along, you just have to grab the opportunity.”