Dundalk's exploits making us reconsider what we think we know
With all the hoopla surrounding the All-Ireland finals, the beginning of the Champions League and the resumption of the Guardiola-Mourinho rivalry it would be easy for Dundalk's draw against AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League on Thursday night to slip under the radar. That would be a terrible pity because not only was this is a fine result in its own right, it was also achieved by one of the bravest performances given by any Irish team this year.
Actually I don't know if there's been braver. Up to this in their European campaign the Lilywhites had matched the best previous achievements by League of Ireland clubs. They became the second club, after Shelbourne, to make a Champions League play-off and then the second club, after Shamrock Rovers, to qualify for the group stages of the Europa League. But on Thursday night they broke entirely new ground by becoming the first League of Ireland team to win a point in the group stages of European competition.
This represents a significant step forward. When Shamrock Rovers reached the group stages in 2011 they never came near to getting a result, losing all six games and finishing with a goal difference of minus 15. Few people thought this diminished their achievement in getting there in the first place. Once you get to the group stages the gulf in class and resources is too great for a League of Ireland team to be able to compete. On the face of it Dundalk also looked like lambs to the slaughter. They are by some distance the lowest-ranked team of the 48 teams remaining in the competition. AZ, by contrast, are the highest-ranked second seeds. Two years ago they went all the way to the quarter-finals. In the summer they sold striker Vincent Janssen to Spurs for €20 million. They finished just three points behind Feyenoord, conquerors of Manchester United on Thursday night, in last season's Eredivisie .
In other words, this was a mismatch. And the odds against an upset became even greater when, already trailing 1-0, Dundalk had arguably their best player, Steven O'Donnell, sent off in the 72nd minute. Yet you get the feeling that Steven Kenny's side have begun to relish the seeming impossibility of their European assignments and they stayed in the game before equalising with a terrific 89th-minute header from Ciaran Kilduff which sent the Dundalk fans in Alkmaar, some of whom had to travel to Dublin Airport for the flight out on the team coach after their mini-bus broke down, into raptures.
But once again the unlikeliest thing of all was the way Dundalk played. Given the odds against them it would be understandable if they adopted a 'backs to the wall, keep them out and boot it away' attitude. Instead against AZ, as was also the case against Legia Warsaw and BATE Borisov they looked as though they belonged in this company, something acknowledged by the Dutch team's manager after the game.
"They're not a typical British team. They try to play football. In the first half they were better than AZ with their short combinations and they had more of the ball than us," said John van den Brom.
A League of Ireland team just went to Holland and played better football than the home team. Think about that. Because Dundalk are making us reconsider what we think we know. They call into question the idea that our national team is restricted to a long ball game because that's 'our footballing culture.' They, as Kenny Cunningham pointed out on Thursday, call into question the idea that League of Ireland players never, ever deserve a place in the national squad until they move cross-channel. And they call into question the general writing off of the League of Ireland in Irish sporting culture.
Of course you can't see them qualifying from the group. That would be just too unlikely. Wouldn't it?
Sunday Indo Sport