Supersub Ciaran Kilduff found the most memorable way to celebrate his 28th birthday by scoring the goal which gave Dundalk a magnificent victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League at Tallaght Stadium.
It meant Stephen Kenny’s remarkable team have written another historic chapter in their extraordinary season by becoming the first Irish side ever to claim three points in the group stage of European competition — and that’s quite apart from the smaller but not insignificant matter of adding another €360,000 to the Irish champions’ coffers.
“It’s a special moment,” said Kilduff last night. “The lads were unbelievable all night through... we said before the game we wanted to win it and we got what we deserved tonight.”
At this rate, Dundalk are giving Leicester, Iceland, Wales and anyone else you care to mention a right run for their money as the most inspiring and romantic football story of 2016.
Dundalk went into the game ahead of the visitors in the table after earning an admirable point away from home in a 1-1 draw with AZ Alkmaar, while Maccabi were throwing away a three-goal lead before going down 4-3 at home to Zenit St Petersburg.
But there was a price to pay for Stephen Kenny from the game in Holland, with the sending off of captain Stephen O’Donnell ruling him out of last night’s match. Chris Shields came in for the skipper while Robbie Benson started in place of John Mountney who was confined to the bench until 15 minutes from the end as he recovered from a groin strain.
Although the game was sell-out, with 5,500 tickets sold, traffic problems meant the stadium was still filling up as the match kicked off, the all-black of Dundalk confronting the all-yellow of Maccabi.
And inside two minutes, the ‘Lilyblacks’ were almost in, a long clearance from skipper for the night, Andy Boyle, getting a headed flick-on from David McMillan to Patrick McEleney, who suddenly found himself one on one with Maccabi’s Predrag Rajkovic. But, unfortunately for McEleney, and to the dismay of the home support, his tame shot was straight at the ‘keeper who had recently conceded two goals to Ireland when playing for Serbia in Belgrade.
Dundalk continued to have the best of the opening exchanges, with star man Daryl Horgan a constant worry for Maccabi as he hugged the left flank before jinking inside in. At the other end, a full 15 minutes had elapsed before Gary Rogers was obliged to dirty his gloves, comfortably gathering a low drive from Omri Ben Harush.
The Dundalk players and supporters were loudly unanimous in their claims for a penalty when Robbie Benson went sprawling in the box in the 20th minute but, in the absence of definitive evidence of contact with the foot of Ben Harush, the Latvian referee was not to be persuaded.
On the half-hour, Irish football’s man of the moment Horgan — with Ireland manager Martin O’Neill looking on from the stand — began and ended another incisive Dundalk move but, once again, the final shot from the edge of the area was straight at the relieved Rajkovic, by far the busier of the two ‘keepers.
Going into the break, it was ultimately only Dundalk’s wastefulness in front of goal which kept the scoreboard bare and, straight from the restart, the Irish champions were on the front foot again, the Maccabi rearguard always looking nervous under any kind of sustained pressure.
With Maccabi frequently happy to pass it around at the back in a bid to defuse Dundalk’s attacking tempo, Stephen Kenny looked to break the deadlock in the 64th minute by sending on Ciaran Kilduff for McMillan, and almost got an immediate response as the substitute rose highest at the far post to head a Ronan Finn cross just over the top.
But just four minutes later, it was Dundalk’s turn to heave a sigh of relief when Icelandic international Vidar Orn Kjartansson shot wildly over the top after a pullback across the face of the area by Haris Medunjanin.
And then, in the 72nd minute, came the deserved and glorious breakthrough moment for Dundalk, as McEleney first did brilliantly to find Horgan, whose lofted cross from the left eluded the head of Benson but fell perfectly for substitute Kilduff, sneaking in unmarked at the far post, to finish from close range.
After that, it was a countdown to ecstasy for the Dundalk faithful before the final whistle signalled an eruption of joyous celebration in Tallaght Stadium.
Rogers, Gannon, Gartland, Boyle, Massey, Benson (Shiels 84), Finn, Shields, Horgan, McEleney (Mountney 74), McMillan (Kilduff 64)
Rajkovic, Peretz, Ben Haim, Tibi, Benhrush, Igiebor (Miha 59), Alberman (Itzhaki 74), Mendunjanin. Scarione. Ben Chaim (Benayoun 80), Kjartansson.
Andris Treimanis (Latvia)
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