Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny might not believe in miracles but ahead of the side’s Europa League Group D opener against AZ Alkmaar in the AFAS Stadion tonight he is being treated as something of a saviour by many of the club’s supporters.
With around 1,000 followers of the Co Louth outfit believed to be travelling to Holland for the game, one particular group’s travel plans looked to have hit a major snag yesterday morning when their bus broke down on the way to Dublin Airport.
However, Kenny came to the rescue as he pulled up on the team coach within minutes to offer the stranded fans a ride to catch their flight on time.
“It was no big deal really,” he laughed. “Harry Taaffe, our cameraman, notified me they broke down as we were driving. We realised they might miss the trip so we pulled over to make sure we got them there. That was it really.”
While Kenny was quick to play down that particular kind gesture, he was less modest when questioned about his side becoming only the second Irish club to reach the group stages of a European competition.
“I don’t know if the word ‘miracle’ is appropriate but we’ve got good players and we’ve shown our players are technically very good,” he said.
“They’ve improved over the last few years but we know we have a way to go to match the top teams in Europe. It’s our first time at this level so it’s a big opportunity for us.
“Most neutral observers would think we have very little chance of making it through. They’d feel that AZ, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Zenit St Petersburg are ultimately bigger clubs and would see it somewhat of a formality that we would be bottom of the group.
“That would be the genuine train of thought and it’s difficult to argue with that but I do think we’ve shown consistently against good teams that we’ve been able to more than match them so it’s our ambition to try and get some results and see where it takes us.”
After a run of six matches in the space of 17 days, culminating with Monday’s 2-0 league win over Finn Harps, Kenny admitted his side were “underprepared” for the game but said he was confident his players would rise to the occasion just as they had done against FH Hafnarfjordur, BATE Borisov and Legia Warsaw in the Champions League qualifiers.
“We’ve had no time really to prepare for this, unlike the other games. Our preparations will be not to my liking,” he said.
“I think we’ll be underprepared because of the three-day turnaround from Monday and the lack of opportunity to do anything on them but that’s the nature of it.
“What we have to do is get into the stadium and be inspired by the crowd and give it a right go and try and get a result. We’ve shown a real capacity to rise to the occasion and play teams that are ranked miles ahead of us.
“To do that you have to scale incredible heights. People don’t realise how much you have to lift your game and tactically you’ve got to be very well prepared and astute. The players will be motivated. They’ve a great desire to go and do well. It’s a step up for us but we’ve consistently shown that we can rise to the occasion,” he said.
While AZ coach John van den Brom underlined his respect for the Irish champions’ European achievements to date, he does expect his side to win their European opener.
“We always feel confident because what is most important for us is that we play at home. Even after the qualification game we have won the games since so we’ve a good feeling in the camp. We’ve everyone fit so we can play our strongest team. We’ve a lot of respect for Dundalk but we think we can win tomorrow.
“We know that they are semi-professional but it’s too easy to say because they are semi-professional that we’ll win easy. They’re a good team with a good coach so we have to be respectful to the opponent and that is one of the most important things for us.
“They were almost in the Champions League. They had chances to win the game against Legia and it’s not for nothing that they are in first position in Ireland.
“They’ve played a lot of games so the team is quite complete. We know what we have to do,” he said.
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