Dundalk aiming to avoid repeat of Rovers wipeout
Published 25/08/2016 | 02:30
As they reflected on their near miss in Warsaw, Dundalk players and officials admitted that it was hard to believe they had reached the point where reaching the Europa League group stages is a disappointment.
They all felt that making the Champions League was possible and injury-time concessions in both legs on top of the controversial penalty which Legia converted at the Aviva meant that they travelled home with a deep sense of regret.
Stephen Kenny was disappointed at the missed opportunity but he did stress that becoming only the second Irish club to reach the Europa League group stages was an incredible achievement.
He has players in his dressing room who were part of the Shamrock Rovers side that made the breakthrough in 2011 with Ronan Finn, Stephen O'Donnell, Ciaran Kilduff and then rookie Sean Gannon part of that adventure.
Rovers qualified by virtue of a dramatic success over Partizan Belgrade but ended up losing all six matches. And Dundalk striker David McMillan gets the feeling that the Hoops viewed those games as bonus territory whereas this group will have a more ambitious mindset.
"Some of the lads who were there before with Rovers have talked about getting there and that was it done," he says. "They didn't expect to pick up any points.
"I think this team will be different. From already speaking to one or two lads about it, the aim will be high to make sure we get points and do very well. The performances we've put in - particularly in the last two rounds against teams that have been in group stages quite a bit - (then) who says we can't get points and get through our group or something like that."
Dundalk will learn their fate tomorrow. As it stands, Tallaght Stadium is the planned venue for their Europa League matches but it requires substantial upgrades and media/VIP and other seating requirements that would reduce the capacity. The Aviva Stadium is the alternative but UEFA - who have a big say - hold fears about the prospect of small crowds in a huge stadium and how that might look for sponsors and the TV audience. Dundalk have to declare intentions before the draw, yet there is a chance they could change tack if they land a glamour tie.
They already know that the likes of Manchester United, Inter Milan and Roma are on a long list of potentially attractive opponents. The ideal mix would involve that date with a big gun and games where points could be picked up to further boost the coffers and aid their seeding for future European campaigns. Each win is worth €360,000 with €120,000 on offer for a draw.
Ultimately, the small size of Kenny's squad came back to bite them against Legia. With a crazy fixture schedule around the corner due to their European commitments - a run that could threaten their aim to win a third title in a row and get back to the Champions League next year - Kenny has added two free agents to his squad.
Ex-Sligo Rovers defender Alan Keane has come out of retirement to sign up; he had to pay back the tax dividend he collected when hanging up his boots before a deal could be completed.
Meanwhile, Dean Shiels - the son of Derry manager Kenny - has signed up after four seasons with Glasgow Rangers in a long career in Scotland. The 31-year-old attacking midfielder has 14 Northern Ireland caps.
That kind of experience will help. Dundalk's inability to step up a gear when Legia went up a gear was not just borne from fatigue; goalscorer Robbie Benson and Kenny admitted that the Poles had the savvy to react better to the situation.
"We had them where we wanted them," said Patrick McEleney, "But we got to a certain stage where we had worked so hard where we couldn't give anymore. We still could have played better."
Defender Andy Boyle has been tipped for an Ireland call-up by his defensive colleague Paddy Barrett and, while he didn't put himself forward, the centre-back is of the opinion that involvement in the major European nights should put Dundalk players into Martin O'Neill's thoughts.
"There won't be too many Irishmen playing in Europe this year," he said.
"There are definitely players who can play for the national side. It's down to Martin O'Neill."
Dundalk will be busy during the next international gathering. First up is the dramatic contrast of a league match in Wexford tomorrow night as minds turn to the important matter of winning the title. It kicks off a hectic schedule with a refixed FAI Cup tie with Crumlin next Tuesday and a crunch showdown with title rivals Cork next Friday.
If Dundalk get past Crumlin, they will face UCD in the FAI Cup quarter-finals. The pick of the ties is the meeting of Shamrock Rovers and Cork in Tallaght. Elsewhere, St Patrick's Athletic host Cobh Ramblers and Derry City travel to Wexford.