Saturday 24 March 2018

Call to arms for Ireland's football fans to get behind Dundalk in their bid to make history

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny celebrates with team fitness coach Graham Byrne after the UEFA Champions League Third Qualifying Round. Photo: Sportsfile
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny celebrates with team fitness coach Graham Byrne after the UEFA Champions League Third Qualifying Round. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Dundalk's Champions League play-off round tie with Legia Warsaw, which gets underway with the first leg at the Aviva Stadium on Wednesday night, is one of the most important fixtures in League of Ireland history.

The anticipation for this one seems many times greater than that which preceded Shelbourne's meetings with Deportivo La Coruna at the same stage 11 years ago.

That's because, while it never seemed likely that Shels would turn over a La Liga side who'd reached the Champions League semi-final the previous season, Dundalk's chances cannot be dismissed out of hand.

The prospect that a League of Ireland side could soon be playing a series of competitive games against the kind of clubs who normally only ever visit Ireland to play friendlies against English opposition in meaningless tournaments is cruelly tantalising.

We are only 180 minutes away from something that even the most fervent partisans of the league would never have dared to predict.

You know how unlikely this fixture is? Before the draw was made, the League of Ireland was ranked 40th of the European leagues. Of the other nine sides seeking a place in the competition proper over the next couple of weeks, Ludogorets Razgrad represent the next weakest league, the Bulgarian which is ranked 25th.

But Razgrads, financed by the enormously wealthy industrialist Kiril Domuschiev and with recent European wins over Lazio, PSV Eindhoven and Basel on their CV are hardly typical of the league they represent and utterly dominate. Dundalk's presence in this round, alongside Manchester City, Villarreal, Porto and Celtic, is a glorious anomaly.

Logic would suggest that the fairytale has progressed as far as is likely at this stage. Yet there is a slight suggestion of vulnerability about Legia which is encouraging us to dream on. They haven't, for example, made the group stages of the Champions League themselves since losing in the 1996 quarter-final to Panathinaikos. However, this statistic may not fully reflect their current standing.

Two seasons ago Legia were good enough to beat Celtic 4-1 at home and 2-0 away in the third qualifying round but were thrown out for fielding an ineligible player. Pitched into the Europa League instead, they won five out of six group matches before losing to Ajax in the round of 32.

Last year they were less impressive, exiting the Europa League at the group stage having been surprised by the Danish side Midtjylland who went on to give Manchester United a bit of a fright later in the competition.

But with a 21,000 average home attendance and an annual budget of around €25 million, they obviously inhabit a very different footballing universe to Dundalk.

They may have no household names in their ranks but centre back Michal Pazdan was man of the match in Poland's 0-0 European Championships draw with Germany while striker and top scorer Nemanja Nikolic impressed for the hugely entertaining Hungarians in that competition. And of the side which defeated Slovakia's AS Trencin in the last round, nine have been capped at full international level, the majority of them for Poland, a stronger side than the Republic of Ireland. Dundalk haven't a player within an ass's roar of our international side.

Of course you could have made the same kind of points about BATE Borisov but the fact is that Dundalk face a gargantuan task on Wednesday. They will need something to hold on to before facing what looks likely to be a full house at the 31,000 capacity Polish Army Stadium in Warsaw next week as the Poles seek to end their 20-year group stage famine.

That's why it would be terrific to see the Aviva Stadium giving our national champions the same kind of backing which has been forthcoming for our national team in recent times and has put the wind up more than one highly rated visiting side. To this end, Dundalk have been extremely reasonable about ticket prices, it's a fiver in for kids and no ticket will exceed €30. They realise how vital it is to create the same kind of atmosphere in Ireland which will greet them when they visit Poland.

There have been big crowds to watch League of Ireland sides in the Aviva before, the 36,000 who watched Sligo Rovers play Shamrock Rovers in the 2010 FAI Cup final sticks in the mind and even the 25,000 who watched Dundalk beat Cork City in last year's decider wasn't too shabby. Something of the same order on Wednesday would be terrific.

After all, there's a chance that you might see history being made. And wouldn't it be even better if you'd helped to make it?

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