One defeat doesn’t define Dundalk’s remarkable season even if, with so much at stake, last night’s 2-1 loss to Maccabi Tel Aviv is bound to leave Stephen Kenny and his players with an acute sense of deflation at the end of their European dream.
All the more so because, as in the home defeat to AZ Alkmaar, the Lilywhites hardly did themselves justice in Netanya, self-inflicted blows helping an admittedly dominant Maccabi score the two goals which gave them the points but, as it turned out, nothing else, as AZ got the better of Zenit in Holland to join the Russians in the knockout stage of the Europa League.
Having thrived when the workload of a ferociously demanding season was at its heaviest, there’s bitter irony in the fact that, when the players were finally able to catch their breath, it could seem as if, with those final two games, Dundalk left their worst until last in Europe this season. Apart from anything else, that tells you something about the power of adrenaline as an antidote to fatigue, perhaps.
Yet, as they belatedly applied some pressure with the clock running down in Israel, credit the Lilywhites for not giving up until they had nothing more to give. They had already shown their character on a difficult night by putting together a move of trademark quality to fashion an equaliser just six minutes after Maccabi had taken the lead.
And had Ciaran Kilduff been able to reproduce his earlier heroics in the campaign by burying a great chance at the death, Dundalk would have added another away point to their unprecedented store of achievements in Europe.
And a draw, even if flattering on the night, would have been fitting as the last act of a memorable 2016 for the club.
Domestically, Dundalk’s achievements this year have been impressive right across the board: a third successive league title, runners-up to Cork City in the cup, three players called up to the Republic of Ireland squad, and any number of individual awards, culminating in Stephen Kenny being named the Manager of the Year.
But it’s what they have done in Europe which is without precedent in Irish club football history and the real reason why 2016 will live long in the memory not only of ‘the Town’ but of the whole country.
Their European highlights reel bubbles over with good things, not least the totality of that stunning 3-0 defeat of BATE Borisov on a night in Tallaght when, for the euphoric faithful who were present and all followers of League of Ireland football, a sensation of disbelief at what they were witnessing rubbed up against a conviction that, surely, this was as good as it could possibly get for an Irish side.
Except this was Dundalk, so that even as they exited the Champions League in the playoff stage, they did so not only after pushing Legia Warsaw to the limit over two legs but — in what was a performance of immense quality and character — by illuminating the away game, a 1-1 draw, with a Robbie Benson blockbuster which would have graced any of the greatest stages in world football.
And even then, the end turned out to be just the beginning, Kenny’s team overcoming the disappointment of failing to become the first Irish side to make it to the group stage of the Champions League, by creating alternative history in the Europa League with a brace of notable back-to-back firsts for a League of Ireland club: first point in a group stage thanks to Kilduff’s late equaliser away to AZ Alkmaar followed by a first victory thanks to the same striker’s winner against Maccabi in Tallaght.
And, win, lose, or draw, running through the majority of the games was a thread of gold: bearing the shining imprint of Stephen Kenny, it was always the team’s first instinct to try to play football the right way, meaning — for all the hard work they were always willing to put in — the technical would never play second fiddle to the physical. Regardless of the reputation of the opposition, these underdogs always insisted on equal status once the whistle blew.
It told you everything about how Dundalk’s quality now matched their ambition that there was nothing other than a feeling of unvarnished disappointment at their narrowly losing both games against the group’s powerhouse, Zenit St Petersburg, and something closer to dismay when, really for the first time at this level, they failed to live up to their own billing against AZ in Tallaght, ultimately paying the price for the sluggishness of their start, with a 1-0 defeat.
But that their performance that night was so out of character, merely reinforced how the highest expectations had become the norm by the time their protracted season stretched into late November before concluding last night with Christmas just around the corner — but, sadly, no early present in the form of a place in Monday’s Europa League draw.
The fact remains, however, that Dundalk have set the bar higher than it’s ever been for club football in this country, with dear old Oriel Park itself set to be a welcome beneficiary of the financial rewards. On the other hand, part of the price of the same success is that it looks like they will now lose that star among stars, Daryl Horgan. There can be no sugar-coating the departure of someone of his calibre except to note that when Dundalk lost another outstanding talent, Richie Towell, they not only took his absence in their stride but somehow emerged as an even more potent force.
And the main reason for that is the man they most need to keep at the club. As long as Stephen Kenny remains at the helm, no-one would bet against Dundalk eclipsing even themselves in 2017.
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