As the heavens opened, allowing a warm late-summer monsoon to fall on the floodlit Tallaght Stadium below, the outpouring of joy among the 4,645 in the stands would not be dampened. Inflatable bananas were flung towards the dark clouds and disbelieving fans embraced one another, as the Dundalk players dashed towards goalscorer Robbie Benson. Dundalk had just sealed their 3-1 aggregate victory over BATE Borisov, earning a place in the Champions League play-offs in the process, and the term ‘upset’ seemed to not do the situation justice. Given the disparity between the two clubs less than four years previous, it was absurd.
On October 2nd 2012, BATE followed up their surprise 3-1 victory away to Lille in their opening Champions League group game with a shock win over German giants Bayern Munich by the same score in Minsk, with goals courtesy of Aleksandr Pavlov, Vitali Rodionov, and Renan Bressan. The victory over the side that would end the season as European champions and whose nucleus would go on to lift the World Cup in Brazil two years later was acknowledged around the globe and sent the Belarusian champions top of Group F, with six points from six.
In contrast, 2,700 or so kilometres to the west and three days prior to BATE’s famous win, Dundalk were demolished 7-0 by Shamrock Rovers at Rovers’ Tallaght Stadium in the League of Ireland Premier Division. It was a result that encapsulated a wretched season for the Louth side; one which very nearly proved to be their last in existence.
A million miles away from any sort of national - let alone international - attention, Dundalk followed up the Rovers annihilation by succumbing 4-0 to Derry City the following week. They would finish off the season on October 26th with just their fourth victory of the Premier Division campaign, defeating Bray Wanderers 2-1 in front of a paltry 260 fans at their Oriel Park home.
Had this been a typical season, Dundalk would have been relegated, having finished bottom of the table, five points from safety. However, following in the traditional vein of what is a chaotically unstable league, fellow border club Monaghan United resigned from the Premier Division halfway through the 2012 season, citing “mainly, but not only, financial reasons”. Ending the season in 11th position of what was officially still a twelve-team league, Dundalk were afforded the lifeline of a promotion/relegation play-off against Waterford United, which they duly won 4-2 on aggregate.
Had the club fallen into the financial abyss of the First Division, it “would have been curtains”, admits general manager Martin Connolly. “I think we may have been a couple of days from going out of business,” Connolly says, looking back to the summer months of 2012. The horrible run of results throughout the year had seen home attendances dwindle, and financial constraints in the wake of the economic recession meant that some players went unpaid, with others let go. Unpaid electricity bills necessitated that the antiquated Oriel Park floodlights be switched off immediately after evening games, while the board made the decision to prioritise the hiring out of the club’s disastrously scruffy Astroturf pitch to the general public over providing it for the senior team to train on. The squad was banned from using one of the gyms in the town following reported incidents involving some of the players. Sentiment towards the club from the local community was at an all-time low.
With Ireland’s most successful provincial club on its knees, two local businessmen, Andy Connolly (Martin’s brother) and Paul Brown, acquired ownership in August of 2012 and swiftly dealt with the albatross around the club’s neck, paying off its €192,000 debt. Owners of the aptly-named Fast Fix hardware company, the pair then set their sights on appointing the one and only manager on their shortlist - one who had turned down approaches from the club on three separate occasions previously.
“I was reluctant to go initially,” Stephen Kenny recalls. “The previous year they had problems with wages and the pitch itself, the ground - nothing had been done with it in years… they were a really poor team,” he admits. There was enough of an appeal, however, to at least consider the role: “the one thing it had going for it was that it was a football town and had the potential, if you were successful, to get a good crowd”.
The new owners saw the 42-year-old Dubliner, who had built up an impressive managerial CV - winning titles with Bohemians and Derry City, qualifying for the UEFA Cup with tiny Longford Town, and a Scottish Cup Final appearance with Dunfermline Athletic in 2007 - as the ideal figure to turn the club’s fortunes around. Determined to get their man, they drove 200 km to Kenny’s house in the Inishowen peninsula to persuade him to take over at Dundalk. Kenny was left suitably impressed by the encounter: “They were real guys that wanted to stay in the background and run the club, and let me make the football decisions. They were good business people and good people, so they asked me would I come on board and I decided to say ‘okay, I’ll go with it’”.
With Kenny at the helm, swift action was required to build a team that could compete during the upcoming Premier Division season. Adhering to 40-week contracts for the squad, only three players were retained from the previous campaign and, given one of the smallest budgets in the league to work with, the new manager’s skills were immediately put to the test. “We had nothing to start with,” he says.
Recruiting hungry players who had fallen out of favour at their clubs or who were proven talents but had been unlucky with injuries, such as Stephen O’Donnell and Mark Rossiter, Kenny forged a strong unit that managed to finish second in his first season, only three points behind champions St Patrick’s Athletic.
Bolstered by the signings of defenders Brian Gartland and Sean Gannon, the team went one better the following season, beating title challengers Cork City 2-0 in their final game to win the league title for the first time since 1995. Spearheaded by a young attacking line of Daryl Horgan, Richie Towell, and top scorer Pat Hoban, the side played an exciting brand of football that was exemplified by the sublime 36-pass move that built the final goal in a 4-1 win away to title holders St Pat’s.
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Undeterred by the loss of Hoban to League 2 side Oxford United at the end of 2014, the club retained the title the following season, inspired this time by former Celtic and Hibernian player Towell, who contributed 25 goals from midfield. After netting the extra time winner in the FAI Cup final, Towell, out of contract, departed for Chris Hughton’s Brighton & Hove Albion on a free transfer. Once more, Dundalk would start the new season without the previous year’s top scorer. Over the off-season, technically gifted midfielders in the shape of Robbie Benson and Patrick McEleney were signed from UCD and Derry City respectively, to fill the hole left by the Brighton-bound talisman. Showing no signs of a dip in quality or desire, Dundalk burst out of the blocks in pursuit of their third title in a row, winning 12 of their first 14 league games.
Suggestions that this Dundalk team could be one of the best Irish club sides of all time were raised in the national media. They were usually scoffed at, however, owing to the fact that, apart from an ultimately futile win away to Hajduk Split two years previously, the team had yet to achieve anything of note in European competition - the litmus test for all Irish teams. Historically, Dundalk did have a respectable enough record in European competition, most notably in the European and UEFA Cups of the 1970s and 80s. This writer’s father spent his adolescence in the town and, growing up, I would be told of packed Oriel Park nights when the likes of Tottenham, Liverpool, PSV Eindhoven, and Celtic came to town.
My dad’s most treasured European memory came in 1979 when, after overcoming Belfast side Linfield in a bitter cross-border clash which left 100 people injured following riots at the home leg, followed by Hibernians of Malta, Dundalk met the Scottish champions in the second round of the European Cup. After narrowly losing 3-2 at Celtic Park, the part-timers couldn’t find the elusive goal needed to progress to a quarter-final meeting with Real Madrid, despite one glorious chance falling to Tommy McConville in the dying moments, as the match finished 0-0 in front of a crowd of 17,000.
Although this era was a wonderful time for the club, it was anything but for the town it represented. Located a few miles from the border with Northern Ireland and halfway between Dublin and Belfast, Dundalk during the Troubles was a place where shootings, hijackings, and explosions were a regular occurrence. A 1972 BBC ’24 Hours’ report described the town as a place where “there were gunmen on almost every corner and there was open defiance of the law”. British newspaper reports around the same time christened it “the town that no one would sheriff”.
Dundalk did in fact have a “sheriff”, and it was this writer’s grandfather, Richard Fahy. As Chief Superintendent in the town from 1972 to 1980, he was the man entrusted with keeping order amidst the daily chaos. A tribute in the local Argus newspaper spoke louder of his influence than any incendiary reports from across the pond: “To many in Dundalk, he was the bulwark between order and absolute chaos in one of the most troubled periods in the town's history, and if ever a history is written of that period the part that Limerick man, Supt. Fahy, played not just in standing up to the men of violence, both Republican and Loyalist, but to his own Government to ensure that the town had the protection that it needed should never be forgotten.”
Despite being born and raised some 100 km away from the town, this was why I had such a close affinity with the town and the football club, and why I considered it my ‘local team’. I was unfortunate in that by the time I was old enough to start going to Dundalk games with my father and brother, the club’s star was on the wane. Aside from a 2002 FAI Cup final victory over Stephen Kenny’s Bohemians, they floated between the Premier and First Divisions for the following decade.
But, as the saying goes, ‘Unless you have bad times, you can't appreciate the good times’. So, having stood with the proverbial man and his dog watching my team lose away to St Francis in the First Division 15 or so years before, I rather enjoyed the 2016 Champions League third qualifying round second leg win over BATE Borisov. Having edged past Icelandic champions FH in the second qualifying round on away goals, Dundalk were pitted against BATE for the second successive season, having gone out 2-1 on aggregate the previous year. A battling performance in Borisov held the home team to a solitary goal and Dundalk went into the second leg with renewed hope of causing a shock.
Hosted in Tallaght because a dilapidated Oriel Park didn’t meet UEFA standards, the temporary tenants blew the Belarusians away. A David McMillan header just before half-time restored parity in the tie and the same player - a part-time architect by day - put the Lilywhites ahead midway through the second half. Despite the introduction of former Arsenal and Barcelona stalwart Alexander Hleb, BATE were unable to put their opponents under any concerted pressure and, capitalising on a defensive error, Benson put the tie out of reach in the final minute.
Amidst the delirium in the stands and on the pitch at the final whistle, captain Stephen O’Donnell, an immense presence throughout, remained humble:“This is for everyone that plays in the league. Maybe now we won't be a bit of a laughing stock,” he told Eir Sport. Kenny would describe it as his “most euphoric moment as a manager”.
Not only had a club with accumulated profits of €26,323 (BATE have an annual turnover of €40 million) and which was ranked 359th in the UEFA coefficients (BATE were 64th) progressed to within one round of the Champions League group stages; they were playing with a fearlessness and a style that Irish sides - and small sides around the continent in fact - so rarely displayed. This was a statement not just to the rest of Europe, but to the thousands of Irish football fans so quick to deride the domestic league, that there was talent in Ireland.
A crowd of 33,000 – 6,000 or so less than the entire population of Dundalk - saw the Irish champions go down 2-0 to a strong and well-drilled Legia Warsaw at Lansdowne Road in the play-off round first leg. Comfortable for the first hour of the game, Dundalk went behind when centre-half Andy Boyle was harshly adjudged to have handled the ball in the box and Nikolic slotted away the penalty. A defensive lapse in concentration allowed Prijovic in to score the killer second in injury time. In the return leg in Poland, Benson’s stunning first-half volley gave Dundalk hope, but in pressing for the second goal, they conceded a late equaliser on the break and Legia prevailed 3-1 on aggregate. Although the Champions League dream was over, the Europa League group stages was more than an adequate consolation
In becoming only the second Irish club side to make it to the group stages of the Europa League, following Shamrock Rovers’ qualification in 2011, Dundalk were handed a windfall of €2.4 million and a group with Zenit St Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar, and Maccabi Tel Aviv. A further €120,000 - €10,000 more than the prize money awarded for winning the domestic league - was added to the club’s coffers after Ciaran Kilduff’s late header gave 10-man Dundalk a draw in their opening game away to Alkmaar. Post-match, AZ’s manager John van der Brom was full of praise for the visitors: “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.”
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Kilduff turned hero once more in Game 2, coming on to score the winner in a well-deserved 1-0 victory over Maccabi at a hopping Tallaght Stadium. Speaking afterwards to Today FM’s Philip Egan, once the interview had concluded, Kilduff, who would be named in UEFA’s Team of the Week for that round of games, asked the journalist whether he was “okay for a lift home”.
With four points out of a possible six, Dundalk sat second in the group and were looking more likely to reach the last 32 than Manchester United. As the domestic season came to a close, however, three games a week began to take its toll on the small squad. Dundalk were to lose their remaining four European fixtures, each by a single goal.
Zenit, the highest ranked side in the competition, trailed in Tallaght after an hour thanks to a Robbie Benson strike, and they would have fallen further behind had Dane Massey’s header not agonisingly hit the post. In the end, the Russian giants, aided by a goalkeeping error from Dundalk’s Gabriel Sava, eked out a 2-1 win. Similar careless errors saw the same result in the return fixture. Remarkably, on neither occasion was the perceived gulf between both sides in evidence on the pitch - Zenit possessing a squad that cost €145 million, compared to the €20,000 that built Dundalk’s. After the victory in Dublin, Zenit’s Belgian star Axel Witsel said of the Irish side “we know kick and rush, but they played good football and tried to win the game. Dundalk had lots of motivation and fighting spirit.”
The achievement of making it to the final group game in Israel with a chance of reaching the last 32, while maintaining a level of performance which landed a third title in a row and an FAI Cup final place, was a testament to the magnificent effort of Stephen Kenny and his players. Following the 2-1 defeat to Maccabi, the manager, named Irish sport’s Manager of the Year the previous day, was disappointed, but proud of his men: "we've come a long way, but there is widespread disappointment tonight. We had high hopes coming into the game and we wanted to do better than we did, but I can't really fault the players; they've given absolutely everything.”
The money earned from the team’s European adventure has paid off any remaining debts held by the club, and the €3.3 million profit can now be put back into ensuring the long-term stability of the club. Furthermore, purchasing the lease to Oriel Park from previous owner Gerry Matthews means that the much-needed redevelopment of Oriel Park into a stadium worthy of the team that calls it home can now proceed.
Although their presence in the competition was a faint memory by the time the giants from Manchester and Amsterdam met in the final in Stockholm at the end of May, small-town Dundalk proved that the old-style virtues of teamwork, dedication, and humility haven’t completely disappeared from the modern European game. Given the huge gulf between the continent’s elite and the rest, the days of provincial clubs such as Aberdeen and Ipswich Town winning a European trophy are now an impossibility, but the chance to battle the odds and go toe-to-toe with superstars of the game can still be achieved given the aforementioned virtues.
From bucket collections to save the club, to the Lilywhite shirts lining up to Handel’s iconic Champions League theme in the space of four years. What a journey it’s been.
By Michael Fahey.