Sunday 18 August 2019

All work and no play for Dundalk's big picture

Novelty value of Azerbaijan will not deflect from serious business at hand

Baku boys: Dundalk’s Jamie McGrath, Daniel Kelly and
Seán Gannon at the ‘old city’ in Baku ahead of tonight’s Champions League qualifier. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Baku boys: Dundalk’s Jamie McGrath, Daniel Kelly and Seán Gannon at the ‘old city’ in Baku ahead of tonight’s Champions League qualifier. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

This morning in Baku, the players of Dundalk will carry out their own European tradition by going to a coffee shop together.

It's a game-day custom that has become a part of the itinerary during a six-year period where they have traversed the continent and got to places that they would never have visited if it wasn't for their profession.

"All the players and most of the staff go," explained Dundalk boss Vinny Perth yesterday, adding that a photo from each destination is part of the ritual.

Baku is one of the more colourful places they have taken in but they aren't overburdened with options around the Hilton Hotel, their base in an opulent part of this sprawling city which is situated across from a stunning promenade.

Perth and some of his staff were planning to take a trip down to the old city at some stage to experience the Middle Eastern feel of the capital of a country which is just north of Iran. And maybe scout a few options for the get-together.

Don't confuse this story with a holiday tale. This trip is serious business for Dundalk. Perth remembers a time when European adventures were all about the drinking opportunities for travelling teams but this Dundalk group have replaced a beer culture with coffee culture.

They won't be hanging about after their showdown with Qarabag this evening. Instead, they'll head to the airport for a charter flight home. Win or lose, they know they'll be on their travels again in Europe next week. And not on the booze.

The only exception to that rule was in 2016 and their December game in Israel which brought down the curtain on their season.

"I'd like to think Irish football has changed," says Perth. "There would have been a lot of legendary drinking sessions after European games. It's not something we do.

Entitled

"It was almost like fellas had taken two or three days off work and they were entitled to a night out. Thankfully, it's changed, I'd like to think it's changed for the better.

"Maybe other clubs do it, I don't know, it's not even asked here. We went on a mid-season camp (to Spain) four or five weeks ago and I wasn't even asked about a night out. I didn't expect to be. Maybe I'm lucky with this group."

This is their job, and they know from 2016 that the rewards can be substantial. The second round of the Champions League qualifiers is always going to be a big ask for Irish teams.

Both Perth and defender Seán Gannon said yesterday that Qarabag compare favourably with any side they've encountered in their golden era.

They never get tired of talking about their Europa League group stage adventure three years ago. Instead, it actually serves as a motivation.

When Perth took over from Stephen Kenny, he gave a pre-season presentation featuring highlights of that run.

"The football gurus tell you to just focus on one game at a time but I wanted them in their January training to be thinking of these European nights and the group stages," he says.

"I can only speak for our club, but we prepared for this day back in that off season."

Gannon has no problem with the nostalgia, fully aware that their current American owners wouldn't be on the scene if it weren't for that unlikely journey.

"As players, the ambition is there throughout because we know how good it was," he says.

"I think the people who have come into the club have put resources into the club and they obviously see Europe as an aim and rightly so."

Qarabag will expect to pass this hurdle. They are a cash-rich club that has conservatively earned north of €50m from participation in UEFA competitions over the last five years.

The locals believe they were guilty of being too conservative in Oriel Park last week when they failed to build on an early lead.

Pressure was invited, and Dundalk spurned chances to win the match after Patrick Hoban's leveller with 13 minutes to go.

Perth was heartened by how the group responded to adversity; they did have to ride their luck in the first half and can expect an extremely challenging start this evening with Qarabag set to kick off at full tilt with a view to removing tensions from proceedings.

Fitness concerns shaped their strategy in round one and midfielders Michel (a Spaniard) and Filip Ozobic (Croatia) are contenders to come in from the outset.

Daytime heat in excess of 30 degrees has added another variable to pre-match ruminations although opposition scout Stephen O'Donnell was out for Qarabag's win over Albania's Partizani in the previous round and reported that it had cooled considerably by kick-off time.

A fast-moving Qarabag side will work their visitors, though, and Perth wants them to use their European experience to cope with the test.

The only significant blot on their away day CV was a thrashing in Cyprus in the Europa League 12 months ago. "There are lessons (from Larnaca) in that, if you concede one, just stay in the game," he muses.

Circumstances have forced Qarabag to play this match in the Dalga Arena, a compact 6,500-seater that should be full to capacity. Dundalk will have to produce the game of their lives to open bigger doors.

Qarabag FK v Dundalk,

Live, eir Sport 1, 6.0

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