Daniel McDonnell: Dundalk eager to prove they belong
Daunting clash with Alkmaar kicks off mission to bring the European bar to another level
Published 15/09/2016 | 02:30
This evening, Dundalk start a fresh chapter in a country that already has a special place in their history.
The Louth club scored their first ever European win by knocking Dutch side Utrecht out of the Fairs Cup in 1968 and, 11 years later, they returned to Holland to settle their unique European Cup tie with Linfield on neutral territory when chaotic crowd trouble marred their initial meeting in Oriel Park.
When they last visited this neck of the woods for a 1987 Cup Winners Cup tie with Ajax, Frank Stapleton, Frank Rijkaard, Aron Winter and Danny Blind scored the goals for the star-studded hosts.
That was a first-round draw, a reminder that glamour was easily accessible in the old football world.
Stephen Kenny's side have travelled a long road to reach the group stages of the Europa League. The draw did not pit them with traditional European powerhouses; the meeting of Feyenoord and Manchester United which kicks off at the same time just 62 miles away is a reminder of what they could have won.
AZ Alkmaar are a serious outfit, though, an established European performer along with group rivals Zenit St Petersburg and Maccabi Tel Aviv. Their annual budget is €23m.
Dundalk are the new kids on the block, the lowest-ranked side in the competition, yet Stephen Kenny has consistently stressed that he wants this run to be about winning points rather than glamorous journeys.
He wants to break new ground. Shamrock Rovers reached this stage in 2011, but getting there was the mission. All six group games ended in defeat.
Kenny's charges booked their slot via the backdoor route after narrowly missing out on the Champions League. The members of his dressing-room who were a part of that Rovers run sense that this will be different.
"It was a novelty with Rovers getting through," says skipper Stephen O'Donnell. "Everything after that was a bonus. We have more realistic ambitions of picking up points this time around but, again, it's easier said than done. If you're a few percent off at this level, then you get punished."
Ronan Finn is of the same mindset. "We'd be devastated (with zero points)," he says. "You work hard to put yourself in a position and it's brilliant that everybody suddenly takes notice.
"People who don't really watch League of Ireland but watch European football will tune in. You are representing Ireland, so you want to put on a good display."
The rushed preparation arising from domestic commitments has irked Kenny, who believes that strong Champions League performances against clubs with the resources of BATE Borisov and Legia Warsaw were aided by detailed preparation.
Dundalk's squad were only able to start their AZ homework on Tuesday. They will encounter a youthful operation that always banks on having stars of the future in their ranks.
Like most Dutch clubs, AZ rely on selling players to keep the operation ticking over.
Their advisory department includes baseball legend Billy Beane, who has branched out into other sports since his ability to crunch numbers and identify talent inspired the Moneyball book and movie.
Beane was a part of transfer negotiations in the summer, when he urged Alkmaar to hold out for more money when Spurs came calling for prolific striker Vincent Jansson.
AZ ended up securing €20m for a player they had signed for just €400k from the second division just 12 months earlier.
AZ have made a reasonable start to the domestic season, sitting fourth in the table after five games - they finished in that position last term - with their only loss coming away to champions PSV.
Ex-Aston Villa defender Ron Vlaar is the recognisable name in their squad, but Iranian attacker Alireza Jahanbakhsh, homegrown left-back Ridgeciano Haps and Nigerian striker Fred Friday are all highly regarded.
Kenny cited the pace of their front four as a key department, adding that Dundalk's rearguard will have to occasionally cope in four v four situations as he intends to adopt the usual positive, possession-based approach.
AZ manager John van den Brom insisted that he would not underestimate the low-profile visitors, but he did field the usual questions about the semi-professional status of certain players that feeds into a certain line of thought.
Top scorer Dave McMillan's part-time job as an architect continues to amaze foreign media.
"We have a lot of respect for them," said the highly regarded coach. "They were almost in the Champions League. They had a good result away to Legia and they had chances to win the game at home also."
Still, he asserted that the Eredivisie outfit are firm favourites to win and proffered the view that Kenny would agree. The Dundalk boss knows that their progression from humble beginnings is a quaint tale. But he dislikes any query that can be construed as patronising.
He is sure they belong and that view is also articulated by the leading members of his dressing-room.
"From the outside looking in, they might say Dundalk have no right to be there and they've no chance," shrugs O'Donnell.
"But we know our potential and if we do play to our potential, we know how competitive we can be."
Over 800 fans have made the jaunt to a city located just north of Amsterdam, a place which lists a cheese museum as one of its main attractions.
An unexpected heatwave which could lead to temperatures in excess of 25 degrees at kick-off time has added to the attraction of this trip for the travelling punter.
But Kenny and his staff are not here for a holiday.