THE SMALL band of supporters from Luxembourg -- all three of them -- were the only ones not smiling in Oriel Park last night as Dundalk made it into the second qualifying round of the Europa League, the first time in almost 30 years that the Co Louth club had made progress in Europe.
And while the red and white flags of the county's GAA team are more prevalent than the black and white of Dundalk FC these days, there was a genuine sense of achievement after last night's 2-1 win over Luxembourg side Grevenmacher thanks to goals from Neale Fenn and Faz Kuduzovic. Dundalk won out 5-4 on aggregate to earn a meeting with Levski Sofia, the first leg in Bulgaria next Thursday, though Dundalk could have won 8-1 last night if they'd been a bit sharper in front of goal.
"It's great to get through to the next round, and it's good to see an Irish club score five goals over two legs in Europe, but we could have scored a lot more last night, if I am being greedy," said manager Ian Foster.
"Last Sunday, if someone had offered me two wins to end our bad run I'd have bitten their hand off. We won a league game on Monday and we won the European tie last night.
"We're back on track now and we're delighted to be taking Dundalk FC to Sofia next week. Hopefully we'll have a few more wonderful nights in Europe.
"It's a learning process for us all. I have learned a lot about myself and about the game in the last two weeks as this is my first time managing in Europe, because European football is so different to the domestic game. We are under no illusions about the task for us now against Levski. We will be under pressure for long periods out there. There will be long periods when we won't have the ball, so we have to try and get right for that," Foster added.
"We'll go there and do our best. We're not going to Sofia for a holiday, we're going there to work hard."
It wasn't quite like the glory, glory nights of Dundalk's European history.
Like the November evening in 1979 when 18,000 punters crammed into Oriel to see the Lilywhites hold Celtic to a 0-0 draw in the European Cup just a sniff away from the quarter-finals.
Sadly even the reduced capacity of 3,000 was not sold out despite this being Dundalk's first European game in eight years and the first home game at Oriel Park in 19 years. Though, in fairness to the young supporters in the Shed -- The Mujahideen as they call themselves -- made enough noise to make the night a bit more special that usual.
Levski, who were in the group stages of the Champions League only four years ago, will put up a much stiffer test than Grevenmacher, one of the poorer sides to play against Irish clubs in Europe in recent seasons, though there was some hope for Dundalk as Levski's early season form is poor, the side losing 2-1 to Austria Vienna in a friendly last night.
But given that Dundalk were in the First Division just three years ago, progress in Europe is an achievement, and the result last night was never really in doubt, Dundalk already holding the ace of three away goals from the 3-3 draw in Luxembourg.
The tie was over as a contest as early as the fourth minute last night when striker Fenn, the stand-in captain in place of the injured Liam Burns, put Dundalk ahead from the penalty spot after his strike partner Kuduzovic was fouled in the box by Khlaid Benichou. And on 16 minutes Kuduzovic scored Dundalk's second as he beat keeper Marc Pleiming with a well-placed shot after he was set up by Fenn's clever ball.
Dundalk battered Grevenmacher for most of the game after that. Fenn, Kuduzovic and Ross Gaynor all tested the over-worked keeper, while the superb Stephen Maher -- the Herald's man of the match -- deserved a goal for his fine run and shot on 65 minutes.
The visitors did create some chances late on, and Christian Muller did get on the scoresheet in the final minute of normal time, beating Matt Gregg with a long-range effort, but even at 2-1 on the night it was 5-4 on aggregate and Dundalk were never in danger.
"I had good nights in Europe with Drogheda United before but I was really happy to score last night," Kuduzovic told the Herald.
"It was more about the club than it was about me.
"The main thing is that we got through and that we're in the next round. I know it means a lot to this club to progress.
"Dundalk had a great history in Europe, though they haven't won too many games in Europe recently.
"Occasions like this, playing in European competition, don't come around all that often so as a player you have to make the most of them, and I hope we did that last night.
"Now we look ahead to Shamrock Rovers on Sunday and then Levski in Sofia on Thursday. It's a massive week for us."