Sunday 21 January 2018

Supporters united in disappointment on special occasion

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Four years to the day that the takeover of ailing Dundalk FC by new owners Andy Connolly and Paul Brown was confirmed, 'The Town' came to the 'Big Smoke' as standard-bearers for the entire SSE Airtricity League.

What a remarkable transformation in fortunes as Stephen Kenny's side shaped up to play Legia Warsaw in the first leg of a contest to decide if finally, a League of Ireland side can break into the mega-rich Champions League group stages.

The backing for Dundalk from the entire soccer community could not be underestimated.

Outsiders may scoff at the home league but within the domestic game, club allegiance is jealously guarded by the diehard fans.

But last night at the Aviva Stadium, in the first Champions League qualifier held in Dublin 4 since Shelbourne v Deportivo La Coruna in 2004, everyone - bar the vociferous Legia support - was a Dundalk fan, at least for this occasion.

The goodwill ranged from a simple handshake by a St Pat's fan for Dundalk followers and a "hope yez go through" on the DART, to the noisy acclaim of the 30,417 spectators as the battle commenced.

Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians, St Pat's, Cork City, and Wexford Youths fans turned up wearing their own club shirts, defying the earlier downpours.

Perhaps this was a subtle reminder that Dundalk only borrowed their backing for the night.

Fair enough. This was a big-picture event, and no time for the normal divisive rivalries.

A few Leinster rugby jerseys were spotted in the traditional home of the oval ball game, illustrating the widespread appeal of what became a national sporting event.

Smoke from flares released by the Polish contingent drifted high into the upper tiers of the Aviva at the kick-off.

They beat their drums, they sang, clapped and chanted a battle-song to the air of what that sounded like a rip-off of Auld Lang Syne.

The Dundalk/LOI followers came back at them with their own sporadic rhythmic outbursts of applause and chants.

They, too, had brought the drums - a touch of Riverdance in there, but not quite up to the standards of the thunderous preludes to the Icelandic 'Viking claps' which lit up the spectator experience at Euro 2016.

Before the game, there was so much talk of dreams coming true, of the estimated €6m in revenue that reaching this stage is worth to Dundalk, and fervent wishes for Legia to be vanquished, somehow, any way at all, whatever it takes, over the 180 minutes of the tie.

On a day which started with the funeral of Liam Tuohy, an Irish football legend, at a packed Our Lady Mother of Divine Grace in Raheny, we were reminded of the subtle bonds that connect soccer people in this country.

League of Ireland players, past and present, many of them past Shamrock Rovers comrades of Tuohy, former internationals, ex-managers, club officials, FAI and junior league officials, friends and family, gathered to pay their respects.

And let's not forget soccer-loving President Michael D Higgins who attended the funeral mass, and who no doubt enjoyed the richness of the memories of Tuohy as presented by Fr Joe Kennedy and Brian Kerr.


Could the spirit of Tuohy, a former Dundalk manager, bring some luck to the Oriel Park side? It seemed not, as they fell behind to a 56th-minute penalty scored by Nemanja Nikolic.

What a harsh award this was by referee Deniz Aytekin of Germany as the ball nicked up off Andy Boyle's foot to his hand when he made a diving lunge to block a shot by Steeven Langil.

The roars and boos from the home crowd, as they howled their disapproval, echoed the despair of the Dundalk team, but the ref wasn't going to change his decision.

Emboldened by their good fortune, Legia visibly gained in confidence and put together some dangerous moves.

Gary Rogers had to pull off a couple of good reaction saves to limit the damage to just one goal.

Stephen Kenny had brought on three subs - Ronan Finn for John Mountney, Robbie Benson for Chris Shields, and Ciaran Kilduff for Dave McMillan - by the 79th minute to try and force an equaliser.

Kilduff flashed a shot over the bar in the 89th minute but in injury time, Prijovic got Legia's second goal. No fairytale - yet.

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