1st October 2020. Having beaten Klaksvíkar Ítróttarfelag of the Faroe Islands 3-1, Dundalk qualified for the Europa League Group Stages.
This is not to be the club’s first foray into Europe. 2016-17 marked that first occasion in their history as Ireland’s second ever team to do so. However whilst that season was a momentous breakthrough for the club, drawing Arsenal in this year’s rendition could prove even more memorable.
Back From the Brink
Despite being one of Ireland’s two most successful sides alongside Shamrock Rovers, 2012 saw the club grappling with financial disrepair.
‘It is a rags to riches tale. The club almost went out of existence in 2012, and only stayed in the division via winning a play off.’ recalls James.
Poor on-field performances as well as financial miring saw the club’s owner Gerry Matthews sell his stake. Club sponsor Fastfix and its owners Andy Connolly and Paul Brown took charge just three months before the crucial play off.
‘They came in and steadied the ship, keeping the club afloat, and they went on to win the play off. Three months or so later and Stephen Kenny is hired as manager. This was a major change in fortune. He completely changed the team with only three players remaining from the 2012 season, two of which remain.’
Kenny is currently the Irish national team manager after guiding Dundalk to their first title in twenty years in 2014. This was despite having only been at the club two seasons on the back of near dissolution.
‘A league and cup double followed in 2015, and in 2016 the title was retained as well as a European run. It took them to the Champions League play off, losing to Legia Warsaw, but they did well in the Europa League group. It was a major transformation.’
‘That brought in about seven million euros from that run, and all of a sudden were the richest club in Ireland. A remarkable tale given that they were still part time and working jobs alongside playing.’
Whilst reaching the Europa League was the crowning glory of an incredible rise, Kenny’s job in turning the club around is lauded.
‘He had an offer from Limerick as well as Dundalk. Would they be where they are now if he had taken that job? Equally would he be where he is now if he had taken that job? There are numerous sliding doors moments in this story.’
To be brushing shoulders with the likes of Zenit St Petersburg and AZ Alkmaar after their brief flirt with collapse just four years earlier, was unthinkable. They were drawn into the group having lost the Champions League qualifier to BATE Borisov.
If the eventual success in the Europa League was a watershed moment, then what could have been against Legia could have changed the club forever.
‘They were just 180 minutes from the Champions League. The first leg at the AVIVA Stadium they lost 2-0, but they were quite unlucky. A penalty was awarded for a handball, and Lee Dixon on ITV described it as the worst penalty decision he’d ever seen.’
The return leg in Poland again saw Dundalk threaten the unthinkable. A dipping volley from Robbie Benson gave the Irish the lead. A red card for Legia would swing things firmly in the away side’s favour only for the home side to score in stoppage time.
Whilst missing out on Europe’s premier competition was heart-breaking, the consequent rollercoaster in the Europa League would more than make up for it
The draw against AZ Alkmaar and the win against Maccabi Tel Aviv would make them the first Irish side to ever take points in Europe. The win against the Israeli side was exactly four years since a seven-nil defeat to Shamrock in the same stadium.
‘It was a huge moment in the club’s history, and now they’re back.’
Their Unlikely Season
For many reasons, and for nearly all people, 2020 has been a remarkable year. The coronavirus pandemic alone has disrupted and destroyed any sense of normality in society. Yet even aside from this catastrophy, Dundalk’s campaign was one of unforeseeable twists and turns.
Dundalk had finished the 2019 League of Ireland season as champions, nine points clear of Shamrock Rovers. It was the club’s fifth title in six years, taking them within one of Shamrock’s seventeen league titles.
Yet as the new season began on Valentine’s Day 2020, Dundalk’s quest to level their rivals’ record was halted by the pandemic just a month later. Whilst the normal format would see the ten teams play each other four times, the adjusted season would halve this fixture list to just eighteen games per team.
Following the restart on the 31st July, Dundalk suffered a three game winless streak in the league, as well as losing 3-0 to NK Celje in the first Champions League qualifying round. This cost manager Vinny Perth his job, having held numerous coaching positions at the club for seven years.
The new appointment would raise many eyebrows, but with Shamrock pulling away at the top, it was clear that Dundalk would have to prioritise either domestic or European progress.
‘The league title is gone this year. They are still under pressure to get one of the three European spots. After the win against Klaksvíkar, ten changes were made for the next game against Finn Harps.’
‘Between now and the last day of the season they play seven matches in twenty days. Rotation will be important in this time, but they can’t afford to keep making ten changes as they did after the Europa win.’ warns Rogers.
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The Italian Job
Fillippo Giovagnoli had not stepped foot in Ireland before taking charge in August 2020. The Italian’s CV featured roles within the AC Milan setup, directing the club’s camps in Italy and the USA. Yet before taking the Dundalk job earlier this year, he was yet to take a senior management role.
It might be easy to compare the appointment to that of Giovanni Trapattoni by the Irish national team in 2008. It certainly shows a degree of heritage within the Irish game of leaning on Italian tactical nous to lift a struggling side. However Trapattoni’s stints at AC Milan, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Italy somewhat tower above the younger coach’s kindling career.
‘As Italian heritage goes he cites Maurizio Sarri as being his inspiration. Not just in the necessity to play everything out from the back, but also that Sarri’s career is atypical given he was a banker before football.’
Giovagnoli made it clear that his priority was to take the club into the Europa League group stages. They currently stand third after fourteen league games, sixteen points adrift of Shamrock. Yet their progression as one of the final forty-eight Europa League teams more than supports the club’s Italian gamble.
‘There’s no doubt though that they are a happier group since he came in, almost going back to basics. He has got them passing the ball a lot more, but he’s still putting his stamp on the team.’
Doubts may remain about the team’s domestic form, and whether a manager so inexperienced can make the Lilywhites consistent league performers. However the windfall secured off the back of their European run, and the excitement that comes with it has certainly made Giovagnoli a Dundalk hero. So much so that the position will likely be given to him permanently.
‘Really he has done something similar to what Roberto di Matteo did for Chelsea. Look at the calibre of manager they have had, yet it was di Matteo that won them the Champions League. There are similarities to Giovagnoli in that sense.’
The Big Tie
‘They are 500/1 to win the competition for a reason.’ James reminds us. This is not a case of unrealistic expectations for a club that rely on qualifying to stay financially afloat.
‘You see the likes of Manchester United and Wolves, big English sides, struggle with the Thursday to Sunday schedule. It is not realistic to think Dundalk will go far in the Europa League.’
Other problems still remain. The coronavirus pandemic has hit all clubs hard, but especially ones of Dundalk’s size that will be hit by loss of match day revenue. As cases climb games will continue to be postponed (their recent fixture against St Patrick’s being an example).
Similarly fans are yet to be convinced of the long term state of the club, aside from this European success.
However the feel around the club off the back of this adventure has improved immeasurably from the low ebb of Perth’s sacking in the summer. If this year has proved one thing, finding joy amongst doom and gloom has never been so precious.
‘The tie at home to Arsenal is the last fixture of the group in December. That gives the fans hope that the climate will have improved by then and crowds in some capacity will be able to attend.’
What an event that would be too. For fans to be in attendance as Dundalk face a team 128 places higher in the UEFA co-efficient rankings. James also has his eye on the fixture for a more pragmatic reason:
‘Who knows, by that time Arsenal could have qualified. They may rest players and Dundalk could catch them on an off day. Equally the likes of Molde and Rapid Vienna are definitely games that Dundalk could get something out of.’
Ones to Watch?
Even the most optimistic of fans would doubt Dundalk’s chances to progress from a group such as theirs. Then again, that isn’t the test of this tale. Yet they still possess several names with the potential to make a mark on European Thursday nights.
‘Sean Murray got the opening goal against Klaksvíkar. He has experience playing for Watford in the Championship. he joined Dundalk at the start of last season, and after numerous injuries is now back playing his best football.’
‘Patrick Hoban is the side’s main striker. A big, physical guy.’ Hoban’s record for the club also speaks of a deadly finisher, with eighty-three league goals in 139 league games.
The recurring theme within this article, and also the Dundalk story, is one of fortune. Fortunate in that Giovagnoli’s appointment could have seen the club miss out on this European adventure. Also fortunate that going back to 2012, the club might have ceased to exist at all. The final piece of fortune might just be that visit of Arsenal, and the chance for Dundalk to make history.
Whatever happens in these six matches, the Lilywhites mere presence at this stage is a huge credit to human resilience. It is for those fans that have stuck with them, through financial instability, a global pandemic, and poor run of form.
It offers escape from the trickiness of the domestic league, and even more so from the misery that engulfs so many right now. Thursday nights will be Dundalk’s, in victory and defeat.
James Rogers (@jamesdundalk on Twitter) is a football writer for the Irish Times, Irish Independent and RTE amongst numerous other publications. Thank you to James for his candid insight into this fascinating story.