Daniel McDonnell: The 12,000km adventure for memories to last a lifetime
Dundalk's incredible journey was one of the sports stories of 2016 - the six European trips offered an insight into the scale of their achievement
REYKJAVIK (v FH – JULY 20)
In the shadow of the European Championships, the League of Ireland's finest pitched up in a place that is used to just one hour of darkness in the summer.
Long-serving Dundalk fans who remember when their club was covered in 24/7 gloom set out in anticipation that this could be the start of something.
But Stephen Kenny and his staff are feeling the pressure. FH was a kind draw compared to the alternative seeded opponents, yet it was by no means an easy one. The concession of a late equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Oriel Park has given the Icelandic champions a slight edge.
Scaling one hurdle guarantees €1.2m and four more ties. Kenny knows he has the players to beat FH but, early on, it doesn't look good.
"Imagine standing on the touchline after getting outplayed for the first 15 minutes and going one behind and knowing you have to score first," he reflects, "That wasn't a great feeling because we had invested so much in Europe this year."
At half-time, he brings on Robbie Benson for an injection of energy. Dundalk earn a penalty and miss it. But then David McMillan scores twice in a dominant spell.
"For 20 minutes, the players were brilliant," says Kenny. "That was performing under real pressure with a level of composure." They lose their way a bit in the dying stages, conceding needlessly, but they overcome to the turbulence to get the job done on the away goals rule.
The locals quickly disperse as the euphoric travelling support wait at the top of the stairs leading down to the dressing room and raucously cheer every player and member of staff as they emerge.
Unfortunately, the flight home is delayed, a theme that continues throughout the year.
With six days until the next game in Belarus, the players rest while other members of the travelling party retire to a nearby bar with liberal opening hours. Paul Brown, one of the club's owners, is wearing an away shirt and leading the celebrations with the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders. For once, he's looking forward to speaking with the bank manager.
BORISOV (v BATE - July 26)
The renewal of rivalries with an old foe. A year earlier, Dundalk's Champions League tilt was over after one tie, a 2-1 aggregate loss that was followed by some over-the-top celebrations from the visitors. One prominent BATE official ended up on the Oriel pitch afterwards making a shushing gesture to Kenny and fans and tensions spilled over to a bout of pushing and shoving in the tunnel area. "I suppose you act like that and think you're never going to see them again," says club secretary Colm Murphy.
Fate had other ideas and relations with BATE were far from cordial. Terse emails about logistics were the order of the day and Dundalk's training session at the stadium is abruptly cut short by the hosts after precisely an hour. At that stage of the competition, there is sometimes a little bit of give and take but there is no wriggle room here. It's a serious business.
Before the game, Murphy and general manager Martin Connolly watched and laughed when they noticed that spectators were keeping hold of the balls that were fired into the stands during the warm-up. That information became important afterwards when BATE officials accused Dundalk of stealing when they realised they were down a couple. A furious shouting match ensued. "It was a situation where they couldn't understand me and I couldn't understand them," recalls Murphy.
On the pitch, Dundalk suffered a chasing and the mood on the flight home was flat. Somehow, they had escaped with a 1-0 defeat and there were small reasons for encouragement. Andy Boyle was immense and his centre-half partner Paddy Barrett, deputising for the injured Brian Gartland, had unsettled BATE's spiky star Vitali Rodionov.
The Irish hospitality for the return leg would be tailored by their Belarus experience. Harry Taaffe, the club cameraman amongst other things, made sure he was present at Tallaght for BATE's training session even though he didn't really have an official reason for being there. He ensured that the UEFA delegate was aware when their hour was up. On the pitch, a fresher Dundalk side make them feel unwelcome too, with a McMillan brace and Benson's insurance goal capping a game-changing night.
WARSAW (v Legia Warsaw - August 23)
"I'm still not over it," said Dundalk assistant boss Vinny Perth last week. When he reflects on the year, it's the missed Champions League opportunity that springs to mind.
Dundalk were Legia's dream draw. When they met at the draw in Switzerland, officials from the Polish giants simply could not get the head around the fact that the Irish champions only had two full-time administrative staff whereas they had over 70.
Legia sensed this could be the end of their 21-year wait for the group stages. The final play-off round brought a new level of stadium requirements and Dundalk had to move to the Aviva. Murphy was invited to a workshop where UEFA ran through criteria.
As part of the gig, they went around each delegate and asked what their club's policy was on showing replays on the big screens in their stadium. Murphy could feel every pair of eyes honing in on him as Dundalk's turn came closer. The UEFA man stopped and laughed before stressing that they were very welcome to this stage. Dundalk knew they were the novelty act.
But it was Perth's job to prepare opposition analysis for Kenny and he saw enough to believe that Legia were Dundalk's ideal draw too. Over 30,000 came to the Aviva and watched a contentious penalty and a soft injury time goal leave Dundalk with a mountain to climb. Yet there was an air of positivity in Warsaw. Kenny is noticeably relaxed on the eve of the game.
When Benson volleyed a stunning opener, Legia were frazzled in a stadium that was heaving with expectation and anxiety levels multiplied when they were reduced to ten men after half-time. Alas, Dundalk did not have the bench or the legs to capitalise.
The suspended Stephen O'Donnell is in the TV3 studio. His assurance would have helped Dundalk to utilise the space.
Crucially, second striker Ciaran Kilduff had picked up an injury in training days earlier. Teenager Michael O'Connor was sent in for a European debut and it was too much too soon. Legia's squad depth effectively won them the tie and the €12m reward.
Kenny disputes the view that Dundalk were better off in the Europa League. "It doesn't do any harm to skip a few levels if you can," he sighs. "You have to grasp everything while you can."
Legia's directors celebrated a 1-1 draw like they had just found a crumpled-up winning lottery ticket.
ALKMAAR (v AZ - September 15)
Respect means something to Kenny. He is starting his pre-match press conference in Holland when he becomes aware of voices at the back of the room. A local TV reporter is doing a piece to camera Sky Sports News-style and pretends as though he is oblivious to the presence of the Dundalk delegation on the stage.
Kenny instructs press officer Darren Crawley to plead for silence but it falls on deaf ears. The manager takes matters in his own hands by raising his voice and telling the broadcaster to be quiet. Eventually, he gets the message and makes a half-hearted apology. One suspects he would have behaved differently if Real Madrid were in the room.
These gigs are where local reporters get the opportunity to ask about Dundalk as Kenny always invites the Irish media to the team hotel for a longer chat, believing that environment is conducive to a proper discussion.
He always thinks about the message he wants to get across. The Alkmaar audience are curious about the news that the Dundalk team bus had pulled over en route to Dublin airport and picked up some fans whose bus had broken down so they could make their flight. The only term and condition was that they left their alcohol behind. Dutch journalists also want to ask about McMillan, the architect who scores goals.
But their coach John van den Brom knows more about the visitors, asserting that they do not play in a British style. Dundalk earn their point, coping with the dismissal of O'Donnell to come from behind and grab a last-minute equaliser through sub Kilduff.
Emotions run high in the AZ camp as they feared for the well-being of goalscorer Stijn Wuytens after he was knocked out following an accidental collision with Gary Rogers.
After the return match in Tallaght, Rogers seeks out Wuytens in the dressing room and they swap shirts. Kilduff's header is third on the evening sports bulletins in Holland behind Feyenoord's win over Manchester United and images of players crying as medics swarmed around Wuytens.
Murphy missed this trip. The UEFA people couldn't quite understand that their point of contact was back to work as a teacher from September. "I'd come out of a 40-minute geography class and find I had eight missed calls from various parts of the world," he laughs. Fortunately, the next jaunt came during mid-term.
ST PETERSBURG (v Zenit - November 3)
Dundalk arrive in the snow as league champions, an honour they secured just three days after their agonising 2-1 loss against the Gazprom-funded giants in Tallaght. They are fitting this trip into FAI Cup final week.
There's a lot going on. On the eve of the game, Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan are told they have made the provisional Ireland squad. Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane had both been impressed by their performances.
During the home win against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the UEFA delegate - a Belgian - loudly and innocently asked his host in the VIP section to tell him how many Dundalk players were in the Ireland squad. O'Neill was just about within earshot, but did not react.
He waited until Dundalk's schedule cleared before extending the call. Kenny's press conference with the Russians is another curious affair. One local hack asks Kenny what he wants for his birthday.
"I want David McMillan to score the goals to finance the new stadium he can design," he quips, an answer that goes down a treat.
The game is another close call, a tale of 'what-ifs'. Horgan's counter-attacking goal highlights his confidence but the other No 7 - Brazilian international Giuliano - clinches a 2-1 home win. Horgan is not a prolific shirt-swapper, but he did make sure to get Giuliano's.
Like the rest of the group, he admires Zenit's attitude and believes the Louth men really did win the respect of a team with a budget that is 165 times bigger. "There was no air of arrogance about them," says Horgan, "There was no s***e talk or anything along those lines. We went toe to toe with them.
"The greatest respect they paid to us was that they played their strongest XI twice. And they were running around like lunatics in both games. And we came close, so close." In both losses, Dundalk hit the woodwork at vital times.
NETANYA (v Maccabi Tel Aviv - December 8)
The end of the road. A four-hour drive from Syria. 7,000km from Reykjavik. But the small lobby area functioning as a mixed zone in Netanya Stadium could have been anywhere.
Maccabi Tel Aviv had won the match but they were eliminated too so there were no winners here. They deserved the three points but had flirted with disaster in the dying seconds.
A local journalist quizzed the visiting press about the other occupations of the Dundalk players. It's a tired line now.
Home boss Shota Arveladze is under pressure so the revelation that he had scraped a 2-1 win over a team with an electrician and an architect might be news to some of his readers. We've been here before.
The Dundalk players are sick and not in the mood for deeper introspection. Gartland wears devastation on his face as he walks by; his first-half mistake was vital. There are other reasons for sadness too.
It's an open secret that Boyle and Horgan have played their last game for the club. Some toe the party line when it comes up for discussion. Dane Massey is best friends with Boyle and annoyed at himself for clamming up and showing emotion when the subject is raised.
"This can be done again," stresses Ronan Finn. "You just need a group of pros like we have here.
"If somebody goes we're going to have to replace them. Because you don't just want this to be a typical League of Ireland (story) where you're on top for a few years and then the next team takes over."
But Finn has played his last game for the club too, with Shamrock Rovers offering a package that allowed him to plan for his future outside of football - another reminder that Dundalk players have more things on their mind than the average Europa League participant.
The trip home is a fiasco with the players boarding a flight that has missed its departure slot and is sent back to the terminal. CityJet's rep is unpopular as frantic phone calls are made to source accommodation for tired and frustrated passengers.
It's well into the early hours but a contingent of the players make the best of the situation by doing their research to find a place where they can enjoy their first night out of their European year. Morning has broken when they return to base.
On the flight back the following day, Perth is still thinking about what could have been. But there are little moments that draw a smile.
When the final whistle blew, he found himself on the pitch close to Yossi Benayoun, the most recognisable face in the Maccabi squad. "I ended up saying to him that he'd had a great career," he recalls. "And he turned to me and said 'Coach, your team has been outstanding to play against. You played football the right way'."
That meant a lot. And the unexpected compliments continue back home, including after the RTé Sports Awards. On a night out afterwards, the Dundalk crew find themselves in the same establishment as Robbie Keane who approaches the group to tell them they have done themselves and the nation proud. He'd been watching it all unfold from Los Angeles.
Another new admirer from a journey that captured the imagination.