Dundalk targeting unique cup run
The show must go on for Dundalk. Within 30 minutes of their Europa League win over Maccabi Tel Aviv, the euphoria had subsided.
"We basically don't have any time to enjoy it," explained midfielder Chris Shields, whose planned celebrations revolved around going home to have a glass of Coke ahead of a Friday morning recovery session.
Come the end of the year, Stephen Kenny's group will get the chance to celebrate their exploits. But the Dundalk boss continues to remind his dressing room that they still have a long way to go before they achieve their aims.
"We've won nothing yet this season," he said on Thursday night, an answer that was followed by the reminder that their historic run to the group stage and a four-point haul had brought their earnings well across the €6m mark.
"I've never been motivated by that," Kenny shrugged. "We've still a lot to do to win the league and the cup and try to qualify out of the group. You could fall short on everything."
He has instilled that drive into his players and they are on message. Tomorrow afternoon, a fresh Derry City team arrive to Oriel Park for an FAI Cup semi-final.
Kenny might rotate his options after making wholesale changes for the earlier rounds but, now that the final at the Aviva is 90 minutes away, the cup is back high on the list of priorities.
The November 6 showpiece takes place just 72 hours after their second meeting with Zenit St Petersburg in Russia. With a knowing look, Shields suggests that the players have been made fully aware of their manager's views on what a unique journey that would be.
"He's said it that much that it doesn't even faze us anymore," smiled Shields, who excelled against Maccabi after coming in to replace the suspended Stephen O'Donnell. "St Petersburg on the Thursday night, getting home for recovery the next morning, in Saturday for training and then playing the cup final on Sunday.
"That's why it's important we get our heads down and not get carried away with this and treat Derry with the respect that they deserve."
Shields' personal journey has been remarkable. In Tallaght, he was reminded that four years ago he was part of the Dundalk side that suffered a 7-0 humiliation at the hands of Rovers. "I was good that day," he laughed, joking with the local reporter from the 'Dundalk Democrat' that his player rating of 4 was harsh.
"It just shows how far we've come as a club," he continued. "I always refer to myself and John Mountney. We were the remaining two players and we've reaped the rewards of the hard work and dedication and sticking with the club."
At the end of last year, Shields was at a crossroads again as he contemplated leaving due to a squad role that means sitting out certain fixtures. Instead, the improving 25-year-old opted to sign a two-year deal.
"It is hard because you want to be playing every week," he explains."I was thinking, 'Will I go?' But then you might not be enjoying it as much if you're getting beaten every few weeks and not challenging for things. It was the right decision to stay and I'm here next year as well so that's my foreseeable future."
At another time in his life, he might have been headed to Croke Park this evening to drink in the atmosphere.
The Dubs fan has admitted that the only downside of this dream year has been its impact on his All-Ireland socialising. "If anybody has a ticket out there for me, I'll go," he laughs.
He prefers making his own history, though, with Shields acknowledging that it's surreal to be in a situation where he now has a large selection of European highlights to pick from.
In a strange way, missing out on the Champions League has allowed their improvement to continue with the experience of their conquerors, Legia Warsaw, illustrating the possible pitfalls of getting dropped into the deep end too early.
Fixture congestion is Kenny's primary worry now although he will not sacrifice the cup by taking a cavalier approach to avoid a replay if the Derry game is deadlocked heading into the dying moments. Another 90 minutes is the last thing needed with the coming week set to function as the calm before the storm.
Their league clash with Sligo Rovers has been pushed back by 24 hours to Saturday, October 8 to ensure that both Cork and Dundalk have the same period of recuperation before their crucial Oriel Park league showdown on October 11.
Kenny's men have a total of seven league matches and the home tie with Zenit to complete before the title race ends on October 28.
"You can't build on what we've done unless you win the league," stresses Kenny. "But right now I'm fixated on tomorrow."