Monday 19 March 2018

No need to beam us up Scotty, this new planet is great

Ciaran Kilduff has scored in the first two rounds. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Ciaran Kilduff has scored in the first two rounds. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Europe: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Dundalk. Its six-month mission: to explore strange new countries, to seek out new opponents and new results, to boldly go where no League of Ireland team has gone before.

You'd have to say that so far the mission is going pretty well. And also that the best thing about Dundalk's European odyssey is how much fun it is. The phrase 'the gift that keeps giving' is usually used in a sarcastic sense to describe someone or something like Donald Trump or the England football team which forever plumbs new depths of degradation. But used non-ironically it's a perfect description of the Lilywhites. Dundalk are the real gift that keeps giving.

The story of Dundalk in Europe is the story of unlikelihood being piled on unlikelihood at a rate of knots. On Thursday night new ground was broken yet again with Maccabi Tel Aviv the victims as Ciaran Kilduff's goal gave the League of Ireland its first ever win in the group stages of a European competition.

Like Bate Borisov, Legia Warsaw and AZ67 before them, Maccabi are a team who usually inhabit a different kind of footballing world to Dundalk. They fielded ten internationals and had another five on the bench. Dundalk have just one, sub Dean Shiels who's just joined the club. Maccabi have a moneybags Canadian owner Mitch Goldhar, Jordi Cruyff as Director of Football and former Ajax star Shota Arveladze as manager. Their wages bill dwarfs that of Dundalk, a couple of seasons back their highest paid player Eran Zahavi, later sold for around €7m, was on €600,000 a year.

They're also a team in form. In their opening Europa League match they led group favourites Zenit St. Petersburg 3-0 before succumbing 4-3. They are leading their domestic league with five wins and a draw from six games in which they scored 18 goals. The Israeli league was ranked 20th in Europe, ahead of the likes of Scotland, Sweden and Denmark and a full 20 spots ahead of the League of Ireland when the competition began.

It's worth stressing the magnitude of the task which confronted Dundalk on Thursday because they made light of it. Maccabi showed their technical ability in the first half but even then Dundalk should have been ahead, Patrick McEleney missed a first minute sitter while Robbie Benson might have been awarded a penalty. Things like that made you wonder if this was going to be like the first Legia Warsaw match, just 'one of those nights' for Dundalk.

Not a bit of it. It may just be a month since their loss to Legia but Dundalk have grown significantly as a team since then. It was they rather than the visitors who stepped up a gear in the second half and the goal which arrived after McEleney's mazy run and Daryl Horgan's cross gave Kilduff the chance to become one of just six players to score in the first two rounds of this season's Europa League was richly deserved.

Dundalk might have had another one or two after that while their keeper Gary Rogers never had a serious save to make. What was most striking is the extent to which Dundalk have become used to this level of competition. The special talent of Horgan is drawing most attention at the moment but what really catches the eye of the League of Ireland fan is how comfortable less vaunted players are at this level. Take the moment when Brian Gartland surged Beckenbauer like out of defence and played a through ball which narrowly missed putting David McMillan through. Or the abundant evidence that the likes of Sean Gannon, Chris Shields and Dane Massey are not just surviving the new challenge but revelling in it. Massey's full-length block when Dundalk were almost undone by a quick free-kick in the second half displayed the tenacity which underlies the whole structure. The combinations between Horgan and Ronan Finn down the left showcased the subtlety which is an equally intrinsic part of Dundalk's make-up.

Dundalk now have a real chance of qualifying from the group stages. Last season ten points was sufficient for second place in all but two of the 12 groups. Nine or less sufficed in four of them. Wins in their last two matches, a home tie against AZ67 and a trip to Tel Aviv, would certainly carry the League of Ireland champions through.

Four points out of six would give them a decent shout too given that Zenit may well end up with a 100 per cent record, though the Russians probably won't be looking forward that much to their Irish trip on October 20. Right now it looks likely that Dundalk will still be fighting for a place in the round of 32 when the final round of group matches is played on December 8, a date no League of Ireland team has played on since the switch to summer soccer.

For now let's just think about this. In this year's Europa League, Inter Milan have no points from two games and Manchester United have three. Dundalk have four, the same as Villarreal, Fiorentina, Anderlecht and Roma. That's the kind of company Dundalk are keeping these days.

Don't bother beaming me up Scotty. This new planet is great.

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