Kenny: Victory at Zenit would shock Europe
Optimistic boss confident Dundalk can deliver in Russia
In the city which spawned Vladimir Putin, the local spies have done their homework.
When Stephen Kenny checked into his hotel room in St Petersburg late on Tuesday night, after a trip from Dublin which was delayed by issues with Dundalk’s chartered flight, there was some cake and a message awaiting him from hotel management, congratulating him on the occasion of his 45th birthday over the weekend.
Another gift, of sorts, came his way yesterday morning when Martin O’Neill confirmed, having hinted to Kenny previously, that two Dundalk players would be named in the Ireland squad for the World Cup tie in Austria. Kenny is not expecting any presents when he takes his side to a snow-kissed pitch in a chilly St Petersburg this evening, a kick-off at 9pm local time (6pm Irish) making sure that temperatures will be a real test for the Irish champions.
Dundalk winning in the Petrovsky Stadium tonight is unlikely, as classy European outfits like Lyon, Benfica, PSV and Seville have all tried, and failed, to win in St Petersburg lately.
But Kenny, the eternal footballing dreamer, has a genuine feeling that his side, with the squad’s morale high after long-awaited but deserving call-ups for Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan, can do what the likes of Seville have failed to do.
“I am led to believe that Zenit are the highest-ranked team in the competition and we are the lowest, so for us to get a victory or a result would be a real shock throughout Europe,” Kenny said.
“If we got that it would put us in a very strong position in the group, if we can do that. What we have to do is collectively believe that we can get an extraordinary result, and how can we do that.
“Listen, they’re a brilliant team, we’ll have to be brilliant tonight to get something extraordinary. But we are capable of that,”
A training session amid the snow at a blood-chillingly cold Petrovsky Stadium last night was a taste of what’s to come this evening, and with Zenit riding high in tables in the Russian league (joint top) and the Europa League (top), Dundalk come up against a side very much in form, Zenit capable of securing qualification for the knockout stage by beating Dundalk tonight.
The Russians are indeed the top-ranked side in this competition and one of only three clubs (alongside Schalke and Shakhtar) to have won all three group games to date, players like Giuliano (Brazil), Róbert Mak (Slovakia), Axel Witsel (Belgium) and Artyem Dzyuba (Russia) stars of genuine class.
But things happen, strange things.
Before he joined Dundalk for the start of the 2013 season, Andy Boyle was anything but a star, having joined Dundalk from a struggling Shelbourne. Yet within three years, Boyle is in the Ireland squad and in demand for a move abroad, if he opts to leave Oriel Park.
“You could see that he had potential. It would be wrong of me to say that, at that stage, I’d say he would be called up to the international squad, but I felt he was a very good player,” said Kenny.
Once their call-up from Martin O’Neill was confirmed yesterday, both Boyle and Horgan gladly took the praise coming their way but also pointed out that comrades in arms could follow suit.
“It hasn’t happened that often, not for qualifiers, I know it has happened in friendly games for League of Ireland players, so to get that recognition is great, but plenty of players in the league could do it,” said Boyle.
“I know Stephen had spoken about it the year Dundalk finished second in the league, that there were players in his squad who were good enough to play for Ireland and get into the squad,” Horgan said.
“I think everyone laughed at him and scoffed at him. So I suppose it was a waiting game for him but three years down the line he’s been proved right.”
For Kenny, those call-ups and what his side have done in Europe this year shine a light not just on Oriel Park but the whole league. He tells of how his squad, as they were passing through check-in and security at Dublin Airport on Tuesday, that staff, and onlookers, were stopping to wish them luck. The manager of one of the food outlets in the airport insisted that the players sit down for a free breakfast.
“It’s a bizarre situation, even people coming up randomly in the airport and saying, ‘You’re doing the league proud’,” said Kenny. “There’s been a huge element of that, locally and nationally it has captured the imagination and that’s why we have to continue to do well. We can’t just stop and pat ourselves on the back because we’ve had a couple of good results. You’ve got to push on and try and do better again. This would be bigger again if we were to get a result here.”
With that burden of games eased by the conclusion of the title race, Kenny can focus clearly on Zenit tonight, though his squad is without Darren Meenan, Robbie Benson and Shane Grimes.
“You can’t ever take these moments for granted, these are special moments for everyone’s career, you can’t be in any way flippant. These are huge highlights and we have to really relish that and give everything of ourselves to try and get a result tonight.”
Zenit St Petersburg v Dundalk, Live EirSport 1 6.00pm