Monday 19 February 2018

Dundalk in grip of Euro fever

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny.
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny.

Sean Ryan

The extent to which the town of Dundalk has taken to their latest football heroes was made clear last Wednesday, when scenes reminiscent of Italia 90 were witnessed in the Oriel Park bar and the pubs around the town, which were showing the BATE Borisov-Dundalk Champions League tie on a feed from a Russian station.

It took an unfortunate deflection to gift the winning goal to Borisov, and it was the Belarussian champions who were glad to hear the final whistle, as Dundalk thrilled their fans by taking the game to their highly-rated opponents.

While some might regard the 2-1 defeat as another fine achievement, there is no doubt that Stephen Kenny and his players were disappointed that they didn't apply the coup de grace when they had Borisov on the rack.

They now find themselves in a situation similar to that achieved by former manager Jim McLaughlin's side of the 1970s, who went to Parkhead and came away with a surprising 3-2 defeat. That ensured a packed Oriel Park for the second leg, when McLaughlin's tactics were governed by caution, on the understanding that, if Dundalk kept Celtic scoreless, a chance would eventually arrive. He was proved correct, but the chance fell to the late Tom McConville, a defender, who snatched at it and failed to make it count.

On that occasion, it was interesting to note how Celtic's precarious position - even against part-timers - caused their star-laden side to abandon their usual style of play, and adopt a 'hoof to safety' policy in their fear of conceding another goal.

Borisov, who had trouble containing Dundalk, and who have already been complaining about the Oriel pitch, face a psychological as well as a physical battle if they are to justify their favourites' tag. In many ways, the psychological battle is likely to be the tougher examination of their mettle, as another packed Oriel Park on Wednesday will add to their discomfort.

While Kenny will no doubt also emphasise the need for caution, his team's style is more flamboyant than that of the Dundalk of the '70s, so they are more likely to have a go and make things happen than did their predecessors. With creative players like Richie Towell and Daryl Horgan in their ranks, backed up by the leadership of Stephen O'Donnell, they are a very serious outfit, who are on the cusp of achieving what would be one of the shocks of the Champions League.

The same could be said of UCD in the Europa League. Trailing 1-0 after the away leg to mighty Slovan Bratislava, there is a possibility of another shock at the Belfield Bowl on Thursday. It's probably too much to hope for, but the Students have certainly done themselves and the League of Ireland proud with their displays in Europe after qualifying through the Fair Play back door.

Sadly, Shamrock Rovers' Europa League campaign seems destined to end with a whimper rather than a bang, after their 2-0 home defeat to Odds BK. Without their two most experienced European campaigners, Keith Fahey and Stephen McPhail, it was always going to be a tall order for the Hoops, and all they have left to fight for is their pride when they travel to Norway for Thursday's second leg.

Incidentally, their policy of signing experienced players with a wealth of cross-channel and international experience is reminiscent of Stoke City manager Tony Waddington's policy 40 years ago. It proved relatively successful, but it comes with a health warning - take good care of those ageing campaigners, and wrap them up in cotton wool occasionally, so that they are around to take part in the big games. That's a science in itself, but it's one that goes with the territory when you want to build a team around icons of the Irish game like Fahey, McPhail and the soon-to-arrive Damien Duff.

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