Kenny prepared for 'almighty task' as Dundalk start Europa odyssey
Published 01/07/2014 | 02:30
Dundalk will have to go a long way if they are to eventually get from Esch to the group stages of this year's Europa League.
Never mind the geography involved in returning from Luxembourg's second city to their Oriel Park home – the trickier part of the journey will be clearing the sporting obstacles blocking their path.
First up is Jeunesse Esch, 28 times champions of Luxembourg, a team Dundalk expect to beat but know next to nothing about. Yet should the League of Ireland's Premier Division leaders prevail, then interest in them will crank up – because it isn't just a place in the second qualifying round of the Europa League that they are fighting over, but also a cheque of €130,000 and something more precious yet, their self-respect.
Four years have passed since they last played in Europe, when a first-round win over another Luxembourg side, Gravenmacher, was followed by the kind of ignominious defeat that has long been the League of Ireland's stock in trade.
However, from the start of this century – when 35 different teams from 23 countries were conquered by Ireland's elite – both the profile and the balance sheets of our leading clubs have improved.
In particular, Shamrock Rovers' run to the 2011 Europa League group stages brought just under €2m into their coffers and should Dundalk, Sligo or Derry make it through the four qualifying rounds to reach that stage of this year's competition, €1.84m will be theirs.
It's impossible to see it happening, though, and not just because precedent is against them.
"It's an almighty task to get all the way there from the first round," said Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny. "But Europe is so important to our league and as a club we desperately want to go on a run.
"Aside from the financial part to it, the excitement it brings to a town can be fantastic. This is my 23rd game in Europe as a manager and these games can leave great memories."
More recently, the events of last year are best forgotten, though, as all four Irish sides crashed out without a win between them – the first time League of Ireland sides drew a blank in continental competition since 1999.
And while one bad year can be afforded, a second disastrous showing could have grave consequences for a league that is desperately trying to promote itself as a production line of fresh talent.
Yet while that was undoubtedly true a decade ago, when Wes Hoolahan, Kevin Doyle, Keith Fahey and David Forde were inspiring Shelbourne, Cork, St Pat's and Derry to memorable victories over the likes of Hajduk Split, Gothenburg, Malmo and Elfsborg, there is a fear that the conveyer belt has slowed.
Tonight is a chance to prove that a new generation is ready to take the baton and run with it. Appropriately enough, it is Hajduk, the team Hoolahan came of age against in 2004, who Dundalk will face if they advance through this very winnable tie. For the sake of the League of Ireland, they need to.