When Filippo Giovagnoli arrived in Ireland at the end of last month he was a complete unknown.
By tomorrow night, however, he can ensure his place in the league’s history books if he can guide Dundalk FC past Faroese side KÍ Klaksvik to the Europa League group stages.
The Italian might have been a shock appointment to replace Vinny Perth who was sacked after the Louth men’s Champions League defeat to Slovenian champions NK Celje last month having never managed an adult side.
But how he has proven the doubters wrong: he is now just 90 minutes away from achieving a feat only managed by two other men, Michael O’Neill and Stephen Kenny — both of whom went on to bigger and better things in the wake of their respective European adventures with Shamrock Rovers in 2011 and Dundalk in 2016.
When he arrived at Oriel Park for his unveiling just 36 days ago, Giovagnoli was quizzed on his thoughts on Italian managers.
Former Republic of Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni was naturally brought up, Antonio Conte was praised, while Maurizio Sarri was referred to as a “genius” with Giovagnoli taking inspiration in the former banker’s rapid elevation up the ranks to become one of the world’s most sought after coaches.
Given his incredible start at Oriel Park, it is perhaps another Italian coach that Giovagnoli holds most similarities to — Roberto Di Matteo.
For all the investment Roman Abramovich has put into Chelsea over the last 17 years, it wasn’t big managerial names such as Ranieri, Mourinho, Scolari, Ancelotti, Villas-Boas, Benitez, Conte or Sarri who delivered the Champions League for him in May 2012. It was the then caretaker boss Di Matteo.
Giovagnoli wasn’t too put out by the comparison when it was put to him this week.
“He won a Champions League,” laughed the 49-year-old, “but yes it would be fantastic to make the group stages.”
Chelsea and Dundalk are obviously operating on different scales but the similarities are obvious.
The border club’s American owners PEAK6 might not have been on the scene as long as Abramovich but their ambitions, much like that of the Russian billionaire, are similarly focused on Europe.
While Chelsea are expected to challenge for European honours each year, it is Dundalk’s ambition to make the group stages on a regular basis.
Since PEAK6’s arrival, repeating the club’s feat of 2016 proved too big a hurdle for current Ireland boss Kenny and his successor Perth but now after an admittedly lucky series of draws which saw the Lilywhites overcome Andorran champions Inter Club d’Escalades and Moldova’s Sheriff Tiraspol, the club can fulfil their goal against a KÍ Klaksvik side who are in uncharted waters as they look to become the first Faroese club to reach the group stages.
However Mikkjal Thomassen’s side cannot afford to be taken lightly. While they were given a fortunate bye against Slovan Bratislava in the Champions League due to Covid-19, they were competitive in going down 3-1 against Young Boys in the second round and showed their undoubted threat by thumping Dinamo Tbilisi 6-1 last week to set up tomorrow’s Aviva Stadium clash.
The rewards for both clubs are evident. The winner of tomorrow’s play-off will secure a €3m pay day with the opportunity for greater earnings, depending on results thereafter.
Given Dundalk have recorded losses totalling just over €1.9m for 2018 and 2019, that could prove crucial in helping to balance the books at a time when the impact of Covid-19 threatened to put an even bigger dent in the club’s coffers.
Perhaps most crucially, however, getting to the group stages could ensure that PEAK6’s interest remains.
The Americans and, in particular, chairman Bill Hulsizer have come in for severe criticism from supporters for the way they have managed the club in recent months.
There have been spats with the FAI, claims of interference with team selection while Perth was in charge and reports of general discontent from staff at Oriel Park.
A rising tide can raise all boats though and if Giovagnoli, can guide the club to the promised land tomorrow night it could be the difference in ensuring there are better days ahead.
The Italian is, for now, only an interim appointment but if he can deliver his new employers their Holy Grail then PEAK6 may feel they have found their very own Special One.