Sunday 22 January 2017

We are representing our country - Stephen Kenny

Dundalk v AZ Alkmaar, Live, eir Sport, 8.05

Published 24/11/2016 | 02:30

Dundalk’s Gary Rogers dives for the ball as he is put through his paces at Tallaght Stadium yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Dundalk’s Gary Rogers dives for the ball as he is put through his paces at Tallaght Stadium yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

As Dundalk attempt to write their own history, it is the everyday stories of other people that inspire them.

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Stephen Kenny brings them all back to the dressing-room. Since the start of his club's European adventure, he has been struck by the anecdotes of strangers who have stopped to offer good wishes.

In the past week, he met someone from west Clare who said their whole village was following the story. A chance encounter with an ex-referee from Edenderry gave him the knowledge that an area with no League of Ireland affiliation was tuning into this tale.

It has confirmed the manager's belief that when they step out in the Europa League, Dundalk's players are not just representing the club, they are flying the flag for Ireland.

"I tell them that nearly every day," says Kenny. "And they do understand that. We are representing Irish football. We are Ireland's representatives, so we are representing our country."

He believes that Dundalk's approach to games has helped to grow the affiliation, explaining: "They're not seeing a team playing a traditional way, preventing a team nicking a goal and putting in a strong defensive performance.

"They're seeing a team expressing themselves and trying to take top-class international players on consistently and with confidence."

Opposing bosses have backed up that view. AZ Alkmaar's John van den Brom reiterated the view he offered around September's 1-1 draw, saying: "They want to play football with passing and that's a bit Dutch style."

The platitudes are welcome, but the League of Ireland champions have now reached the stage of the race where they are firmly in the results business. Second with two games remaining, an extraordinary position when Kenny felt there was a belief out there - but never in his dressing-room - that taking just a point from the group phase would be a good return.

"It (the attention) is all great but we mustn't let it deflect our attention from what we need to do," said Kenny.

The situation is bogged down in permutations, but it will become clearer for Dundalk ahead of kick-off when they learn the result of the meeting of group winners Zenit St Petersburg and Maccabi Tel Aviv at 4.0 Irish time.

If Maccabi do not beat the already qualified Russians then Dundalk know that a 0-0 or 1-1 draw tonight and any draw away in Israel in two weeks' time will be enough to put them through to the round of 32.

"My instruction to the players will be to go and try and win the game," said Kenny.

"But you can't ignore that fact. In the last 15 minutes, do you throw the kitchen sink at it if there's not too much difference between a draw and a win? These are things I have to consider. Sometimes having that grey area can lead to some caution and can inhibit your play."

Alkmaar arrived in Tallaght last night with a straightforward mindset. Realistically, only a win will do if they are to stay alive.

Their coach is looking on the bright side, admitting that having the opportunity to qualify with just two points from four matches is a let-off.

Van den Brom isn't sure if his side's preparation for this encounter will give them the edge. They are now immersed in the middle of the campaign and have gained sharpness from that whereas Dundalk are now dealing with bundles of spare time.

Ahead of September's 1-1 draw in Alkmaar, where Ciaran Kilduff rescued a late point for the 10-man visitors, Dundalk were in the middle of a crazy schedule and had played Finn Harps three days earlier.

By contrast, this will be their first competitive outing since the FAI Cup final defeat to Cork City 18 days ago.

The break has allowed some players to recharge batteries but injury doubts hang over midfield trio Chris Shields, Ronan Finn and Stephen O'Donnell after they played through the pain barrier in the domestic climax.

Certainly, Kenny expects AZ to provide a stern physical test. He pointed out that football enthusiasts from around the world travel to Ajax to see how they produce young players, but Alkmaar have actually been recognised as the best Dutch academy for the past two years. So, clearly, they are a serious operation.

Joust

But since their first joust with Dundalk, Alkmaar have made changes to their side that have pushed out some of their younger trickier options with the big men getting the nod: 6ft 5in striker Wout Weghorst has been tasked with filling the void left by the sale of Vincent Janssen to Spurs.

"It's a different challenge to Zenit," stressed Kenny. "Zenit's attacking players are smaller, real fast technical players, all off-the-cuff with little touches, different movement and no one in a defined position.

"These players are in defined positions and they are more direct; very quick, very athletic and very strong. They can hurt you."

Dundalk are not afraid, though. Kenny encourages them to look on the bright side of every equation and can see ways to exploit Alkmaar's strategy.

He is loving the Europa League run but does not subscribe to the view that Legia Warsaw's Champions League woes indicate that Dundalk dodged a bullet by missing out. "I know that is logical thinking but sometimes I don't think logically in that regard," he shrugs.

"Legia's two centre backs were injured for long periods. They changed the back four, changed their manager and they've had a lot of problems.

"I would have preferred to be in the Champions League. I don't think it's a lucky one for us that we didn't get in."

His view is that the bigger the challenge, the better this group respond. "You grasp everything while you can," he says.

Tonight can be another example.

Irish Independent

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