Those thinking that, sooner or later, Dundalk’s bubble would inevitably burst at this level were made to think again when Stephen Kenny’s remarkable team kicked off their Europa League campaign by overcoming a man and goal deficit to draw away from home with AZ Alkmaar, to become the first Irish club to take a point in group stages of European competition.
Tonight, as they return to Tallaght Stadium, the scene of their finest European hour this season — when they beat BATE Borisov 3-0 in a Champions League qualifier — it no longer seems remotely fanciful to imagine the Lilywhites claiming another historic first for Irish football, by beating Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League group stage.
Like Dundalk, Maccabi are top of their domestic league, having warmed up nicely for tonight’s game with a 5-0 win against Hapoel in the Tel Aviv derby last Sunday. Unlike the Irish champions, however, Maccabi can call on the experience of a number of internationals playing with Israel, Iceland, Serbia, and Bosnia while, in veteran playmaker Yossi Benayoun and no less seasoned defender Tal Ben Haim, they boast a couple of names familiar to the bulk of tonight’s crowd from their time in English football.
That Maccabi pose a substantial attacking threat while being vulnerable at the back was the lesson from their astonishing opening group game against Zenit St Petersburg, which saw the Israelis take a commanding 3-0 lead only to blow it all by conceding four in the final 15 minutes.
But should they come to Tallaght hoping to eliminate defensive lapses while also filling their boots against the Europa League’s perceived minnows, then Dundalk’s Dane Massey suggests they could be in for a big surprise.
“We are the lowest seeded team in the competition so obviously teams will be coming here thinking they can get their goal difference up,” he acknowledges, “but you’d like to think that when we get the ball down and play, this isn’t your typical Irish team, there’s no hustle and bustle here. We are all good technically, we like to play good football, it’s attractive on the eye and hopefully we get a result.”
This was theme taken up yesterday by the architect of Dundalk’s philosophy, manager Stephen Kenny, a man who strongly believes the Irish game deserves better than to be reduced to bark, bollock and bite.
“I don’t buy into the whole concept — the train of thought going around at the minute — that it is in our DNA to play high up the pitch and to play a more direct style, because that suits our psyche, our level of skill — or rather, our supposed lack of it.
“I cannot tell you how strongly I disagree with that, but that’s the narrative and people believe that and they are conditioned to believe it and then we go back and blame how kids are coached at Under-10 or something.”
As far as Kenny is concerned, the commitment has to be to a more expansive style of football, with all its inherent risks.
“Every game you play as a manager — and particularly in the fickleness of football in Ireland — your livelihood is on the line, your neck is on the line, so you have to be able to take risks. You have to be able to do that. You are not doing it in a casual way. You have to be able to have conviction. There are no guarantees. You can be punished and can leave yourself open to criticism, but you are who you are, you play the way you play, and that is it.
“But rather than it be about myself as a manager, I think for this group of players to go again and to try and get a victory against Maccabi, and raise the roof here, that has to be the ambition.”
But it’s an ambition Dundalk will have to try and realise tonight without influential skipper Stephen O’Donnell, who misses out after his sending off away to AZ. Kenny confirmed Chris Shields will take his place.
Meanwhile, Maccabi boss Shota Arveladze has recalled that, as a then Rangers player, he was booed every time he touched the ball while playing for Georgia against Ireland in Dublin in 2003. He might not be on the pitch tonight but he joked he still expected that in the crowd will be “some Celtic shirts who will give me nice words to my backside.”
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