While I wouldn’t imagine that having to engage with the dreaded meeja features high on any football manager’s list of ‘favourite things to do’, victory must make the task a lot more tolerable.
‘Where did it all go right?’ is the kind of inviting question even the most media-phobic gaffer would be bound to warm to. The alternative, however, sometimes doesn’t bear talking about.
Stephen Kenny has deservedly been heaped with plaudits for what he and his Dundalk side have achieved – so far – this season and, by way of adding another small leaf to the garland, I’d like to commend him for how, in his post-match reflections, he is always prepared to go the extra quote, win, lose or draw.
For Kenny, Thursday night in Tallaght was one of those rare occasions when he had to face the cameras and microphones and tape recorders after a disappointing performance and result for his team. But even on the back of that deflating 0-1 loss to AZ Alkmaar, he made no attempt to curtail his time among us, following up his Uefa-mandated post-match press conference by talking, in turn – and at considerable length- to local radio, national radio and, finally, a little group of us from the daily newspapers.
Not the least admirable of Kenny’s qualities is that, at the best of times, he wears his heart on his sleeve so, late on Thursday night, at what must have felt, in a professional sense, like one of the worst of times, he made no attempt to disguise his dismay at how a potentially great night had gone bad.
On what by his own admission was his first experience of seeing Dundalk in the flesh this season, an experienced visiting journalist from Belfast via England, tried to remind Kenny of the scale of what his team has already achieved. But, even though his answer was typically respectful, the manager wasn’t having any of it, however well-intentioned.
“I can’t really reflect on that now because of the defeat,” he said. “We haven’t achieved what we wanted to this morning, to put ourselves in a position to qualify from the group. I understand the sentiment but certainly we want to make sure that we go to Israel and give ourselves a real chance of winning that game. Whether it’s enough or not we don’t know.”
He was similarly unconvinced by the retrospective suggestion that, when Dundalk started out on their European adventure all of 11 games ago, he and his players would have taken being in a position where qualification for the Europa League knock-out round was still a possibility going into the last game of the group stage.
“Well, I don’t know if I’d have taken this,” he replied. “We would have preferred if we were in control of our own destiny.”
Only when it was put to him that, two weeks from now, Dundalk could yet be celebrating the greatest achievement in the history of Irish club football, did his mood lift.
“That is true and that’s still a possibility,” he said, his face brightening. “Having seen the team play regularly, would you bet against us, like? If you’d seen us play tonight, you might. But we certainly are capable of pulling off those performances. I know I said it a few weeks ago, and it sounds like a boastful comment, but there hasn’t been a ground that we haven’t scored in since we came into Europe three years ago. We went to Jeuensse Esch and scored, we went to Hadjuk Split and scored two, we went to Bate Borisov, Warsaw, Iceland, Holland, Russia and now we’ve got to go to Israel and score to give us a chance. That has to be the objective.” I think it’s pretty safe to assume that, even by the time you read this, Kenny, having flushed Thursday’s dejection of his system, will be all about accentuating the positives for his team. And rightly so. Daunting as as the challenge may be, everything we know about Dundalk tells us that they can indeed get the result they need in Tel Aviv, even if it looks like they will have to do so without inspirational skipper Stephen O’Donnell who tried but ultimately failed to put a hamstring injury behind him against AZ.
Of course, Thursday’s defeat means Dundalk will also need some help from Zenit on the final night, something which Ronan Finn – by some distance the team’s best outfield player in Tallaght – is confident will be forthcoming.
“From playing against them you kind of get the feeling they want to be top with 100 per cent record,” he said. “They look like a team who want that record going into the last 32. They have that aura about them that they feel they should be in the Champions League and, if not, they want to win this competition. I actually think they want us to qualify as well,” he added. “When we were over there they were very respectful and felt we were the second-best team in the group. The manager said it in the press conference and - I don’t want to name names - but some said to us we’re the second-best and want us to qualify.” Which, agreed, is a nice thought but, as Finn himself was quick to point out, not the same as Zenit actually doing the business on the night away to AZ when, even more to the point, Dundalk will be hoping to do likewise in Tel Aviv.
And even though they have indeed excelled in coming this far, it was encouraging to hear Finn make it passionately clear that the Irish champions are not remotely interested in settling for pats on the head.
“I hate moral victories,” he declared. “I hate them. You have them throughout your career. People are proud of you - ‘yis done great’. Family are great, girlfriend’s great. I still go home and nobody is going to tell me to enjoy being beaten. You can’t be proud of getting beaten. It would have been the worst feeling ever if we were going to Maccabi with nothing to play for. But it’s still game on. We still have a chance to create history.” That’s the spirit.
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