Tuesday 24 April 2018

Stephen Kenny calls for bravery as Dundalk aim to take giant strides

Stephen Kenny is fully focused on plotting a famous victory for Dundalk
Stephen Kenny is fully focused on plotting a famous victory for Dundalk
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Next month, Setanta will broadcast a documentary named 'Once in a Lifetime', a production which chronicles Dundalk's memorable European campaign in 1979.

It was an adventure rich in tumult, with the chaos of meeting Linfield in Oriel Park at the peak of the Troubles leading to the second leg taking place in Holland.

Dundalk eventually advanced to meet Celtic and famously came within inches of a late winner to progress to the quarter-finals of the European Cup.

We live in a different world now which makes it impossible for an Irish club to embark on that kind of journey again. Football-wise, the new Holy Grail is getting through one round of the Champions League qualifiers and banking the huge reward.

Rubbing shoulders with the giants of the European game is a distant dream. What Dundalk need to do for a start is topple a team that has made themselves rich by consistently getting that opportunity.

"What BATE Borisov has achieved is nothing short of phenomenal," acknowledged Kenny ahead of tonight's second leg with the Belarusians, who have made the group stages in four of the past seven seasons.

"They are the standout in terms of what they've achieved for a club of their size in Europe."

Around Dundalk, however, there is a belief that Kenny has assembled a special group that are capable of crafting their own European tale.

That confidence was hardened by the initial meeting seven days ago which ended in a slightly deflating 2-1 loss given that Dundalk matched their esteemed opponents.

"We had more possession in the first half," stressed Kenny. "A lot of people were telling me that we would have to surrender possession but we didn't accept that because I felt we had to be braver, press higher, back ourselves and not worry about the consequences. I feel that's the same again here, even though we're not naive and know BATE can be dangerous."

Favourites

Unsurprisingly, the bookies still price BATE up as the favourites to advance. They were the side that the Louthmen wanted to avoid, yet the reality is that the League of Ireland champions will always run into a quality opponent until they climb into a position where they are seeded.

Last week, Belarusian officials told their Irish counterparts that the key to their kingdom was one run that put them in the favourable pot for the second qualifying round phase.

For teams that lose at this juncture, it's all over and back to reality. Progression ensures two more ties and big bucks. Hence, it is the most pressurised 180 minutes of the tournament.

As the underdog in need of a break, this is why Kenny is so frustrated that UEFA have cleared BATE's star man Vitali Rodionov to play despite his admission of a headbutt on Dane Massey.

Kenny can't help but feel a little suspicious too, as BATE announced the news before Dundalk - who had lodged a complaint - heard anything from European football's governing body.

"He issued a public apology to Dane and in his statement said he was ready to take whatever sanctions UEFA gave him," said a mystified Kenny.

"It sets a precedent. Is it ok to headbutt someone in a game? Is everyone treated equally?

"Is there a level playing field between clubs of different sizes? I thought his suspension was an absolute formality."

Rodionov, BATE's player of the year, has been capped 46 times by his country and is regarded as their best player by the Dundalk dressing-room.

"He's clever," said defender Andy Boyle. "He uses his body well and his game has everything; he's sharp over the first few yards and score all different types of goals."

Massey was perplexed that he was cleared but can use it as motivation. "It would be that little bit sweeter," asserted the left full. "There'd be no excuses there when we do beat them."

BATE coach Alyaksandr Yermakovich shrugged off the controversy after arriving in Oriel for training last night. "UEFA took this decision," he said, "We are definitely glad to have him."

He is concerned by the artificial surface, although the visitors gave the air that they expect to lift their performance level by a few notches.

"We are not too happy about the pitch because we like natural grass," he continued, "But we think we will play much better."

Legacy

Dundalk feel they can too, conscious that progress in this sphere will cement their legacy.

Kenny, who must decide whether to recall Ronan Finn and drop either Chris Shields or John Mountney, is wary of veering into comparisons with great sides from the past.

"We still have it all to prove," he cautioned. "We've won the league one year and we've come from bottom to top so it's been a meteoric rise.

"It's difficult to compare different periods, your answers can sound disrespectful, but what we want is to be the best team of this era and we have a lot of skilful players, some of the best players in the league for many years. But we've a lot more to achieve before we can make any great claims."

A result that would genuinely raise eyebrows around Europe represents the ideal opportunity to strengthen their case.

What if Dundalk win

Next round

The League of Ireland champions will play the winner of the tie between Videoton (Hungary) and The New Saints (Wales). They meet in Hungary tonight, with Videoton 1-0 up from the first leg. From a Dundalk perspective, either Videoton or TNS would be viewed as a kind draw compared to some of the alternatives.

Money

Dundalk will be guaranteed close to €1.2m from UEFA if they progress. That figure is drawn from the minimum amount for going out in the next stage and also the amount for participating in the final play-off round of the Europa League. If Dundalk were to lose to Videoton/TNS, they’d be parachuted into that competition similar

Dundalk v BATE Borisov, Live, RTE2, 7.45

Irish Independent

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