THE quote of the week had to be Stephen Kenny describing the luminous moment in Tallaght Stadium on Tuesday night when Robbie Benson’s clinical finish found the back of the net, sealing Dundalk’s stunning 3-0 victory over BATE Borisov and taking the club to the giddy heights of a play-off for a place in the group stages of the Champions League.
“The ecstasy when we scored the third goal was just special,” said the Dundalk manager. “It felt like that was a moment that you just wanted to freeze because every one was so ecstatic. You could see the joy and you don’t always get that in life in any form so to be part of that is amazing.”
The delicious irony of success at this level, of course, is that beyond the ineffable glory of a moment in time that you might want to freeze forever, it almost immediately brings on even greater challenges and wilder hopes and dreams — the biggest night in a club’s career siring an even bigger one, or at least the potential for same.
And, as we learned yesterday, if Dundalk are now to take their place at European club football’s most exclusive table — they’re already guaranteed the not inconsiderable consolation of an extended Europa League run, of course — they will first have to overcome reigning Polish champions Legia Warsaw.
OK so the opposition are not a Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, or a Juventus but they are a club of significant European pedigree who, one suspects, will be more than pleased to have drawn the perceived minnows for such a make-or-break tie.
But here’s the thing about this Dundalk team: So exceptional are they by League of Ireland standards that even though they will go into the play-off as underdogs — just as they did against BATE — and even though the draw didn’t favour them by requiring they play the second leg away, you would still be inclined to give them more than a fighting chance of creating history and going where no Irish club has ever gone before.
So, no pressure then.
Actually, as we’ve seen domestically and abroad over the last couple of seasons, Dundalk are pretty good at handling pressure — just as they’re pretty good at most of the things needed to win football matches, and outstanding in some.
Responding to the enlightened footballing vision and inspirational man-management of Kenny, these players continue to raise the bar in terms of what they demand of themselves and what they believe they can achieve.
All their qualities were on show in Tallaght, not least the resilience they needed from the very start having under-performed in losing the first leg 1-0 in Belarus. And that it was far from plain-sailing for them on Tuesday only served to made the emphatic nature of the final scoreline all the more breathtaking.
Conscious of how decisive the concession of an early away goal might be — as Cork City would discover to their cost at Turner’s Cross two nights later — the Lilywhites seemed unsure whether to stick or twist for most of the first half, allowing BATE to dominate the ball in a way which suggested it might even turn out to be a reasonably comfortable night for the visitors.
But great players change games, and one of Dundalk’s many strengths is that they are blessed with a sprinkling of unusually gifted individual talents. In that challenging first half, and indeed all through the game, it was Stephen O’Donnell who led the way with an immaculately composed performance in the middle of the park, of the kind that we also saw Cork City’s Greg Bolger deliver in their game away to Genk.
But it was two twinkle-toed wizards and one hot-streak striker who combined to transform the whole night for Dundalk, first when Duff-alike Daryl Horgan set up David McMillan for the goal which, admittedly against the run of play, levelled the tie at a critical moment just before the break and then, with self-belief now oozing through their ranks, when sub Patrick McEleney produced some magic of his own to set up Dane Massey for a cross-shot which McMillan turned into the net to give the home-from-home side the lead.
Then came that moment Kenny and the delirious Dundalk support will want to freeze forever, as another substitute, Robbie Benson, raced through to score the goal which confirmed the victory, putting the cap — nay, the crown — on a superb second-half performance and a memorable night for the club and Irish football as a whole.
That Dundalk could finish such a high stakes game by finding the net again, rather than withstanding a siege in their own box, illustrates another outstanding quality: they are a side in superb condition, capable of going right to the wire, time and time again, to get a result.
With those fitness levels also underpinning some serious pace in the side, it’s why Dundalk have it within their means to close the gap on technically superior opponents better than arguably any League of Ireland team before them. They are, you might say, a team fit for European purpose.
The pity of a headline-grabbing week for Irish football is that, against an impressive Genk on Thursday, Cork City couldn’t emulate Dundalk’s heroics. To their credit, and even when all hope was lost, John Caulfield’s men gave a full house at Turner’s Cross every reason to show their acclaim at the finish with a rousing second half display.
Afterwards, the City manager was almost as passionate and animated in the boardroom as he’d been on the touchline when he talked at length about how he believes the domestic game can and must capitalise on a week like this to build a stronger league.
The detail of that discussion we’ll save for another day but there’s no doubting that between them, Dundalk and Cork, the two leaders in the pack, are showing the way to a brighter future — though not, it pains me to say, one that looks like it can realistically be shared by all the other clubs in the league as it is currently structured.
Then again, both City and Dundalk have known very dark days in the recent past themselves, near-death experiences which only serve to make their achievements in Europe this season all the more cherishable for everyone associated with the two clubs and, indeed, all who have a feel for the Irish game.
As for Dundalk, the dream remains alive — and, frankly, it says everything about them that you wouldn’t put it past this exceptional team and their outstanding manager to turn it into glorious reality.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved