A disparity in resources off the pitch was eventually mirrored by those on the Lansdowne Road turf.
If Dundalk’s beating of BATE Borisov was deemed the scalp of the Champions League third round, then the outcome of this play-off was along more predictable lines.
Legia Warsaw’s first-leg victory was a lesson in game management, backboned by a stout first-half display and given flight afterwards through their risk-taking.
While the penalty decision remains dubious, Dundalk were at that stage being stretched and susceptible to one of the slick breaks mounted by their visitors.
Conceding their second with the last kick of stoppage time was attributable to as much mental as physical fatigue. Professional outfits have a habit of forcing such lapses.
Whereas on their last visit to the Dublin 4 venue for the FAI Cup final, when they exchanged friendly rivalry in the surrounding bars with Cork City fans, here unity prevailed in the name of Ireland’s ambassadors at the top table of European club football.
Some within the throngs even doubled up the celebrations to coincide with their Leaving Certificate results unfurled earlier in the day. The team Stephen Kenny built on a platform of youthful exuberance over three years has not only revived the dormant fan in one of the country’s footballing hotbeds but encouraged a new generation to come aboard and feel a connection with the squad.
They may not have been born to witness the fabled European nights of yesteryear when Jim McLaughlin’s troopers extended to Celtic and Tottenham Hotspur, yet the memories created by the current bunch could be of sufficient quantity and calibre to exceed the archive’s riches.
Trips to Hafnarfjörur and Borisov have formed part of the itinerary and Warsaw beckons next week. There’ll be three more excursions to come thereafter, either in the Europa or Champions League group stages, depending on the outcome of the Polish rescue mission.
Uefa’s angling towards a system further benefiting the elite leagues heightens the importance of cherishing this run of the standard bearers. To improve its image, commercial appeal to sponsors, and to get bums on seats, the League of Ireland needs regular European exposure. Figuring that out doesn’t require a five-year plan, the same duration since an Irish team ventured beyond the qualifying stages.
Michael O’Neill was soon gone from Shamrock Rovers following that Europa League tilt, critical of the club for what he perceived as their reluctance to match his ambitions through financial investment.
Through their guaranteed €6m windfall, Dundalk possess the means to at least try to compete for an annual surge in Europe.
Their squad is by far the best in the League, and Kenny has survived the departures of Pat Hoban and Richie Towell from his title-winning squads over the past two years to retain top status, but the scale of their task beyond the domestic scene is illustrated by their opposition at this play-off juncture.
Sprinkled with nine full internationals, at the centrepiece of Legia’s gallery was Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe, the six-time capped Belgian midfielder.
A knock he was carrying and the booking incurred during the first half explained his withdrawal with 14 minutes remaining, but the recent arrival from Norwich City is the only player in the Polish league whose salary eclipses the €1m mark.
Contrast that with his marker, Stephen O’Donnell, another bustling playmaker to receive a yellow card in the early skirmishes. On the eve of this year’s title defence, the Galway man bemoaned how he and most of his colleagues had toiled during the 10 weeks of pre-season without receiving a cent. When the campaign kicks off and the payments finally land, the most any of the superheroes earn is 5% of Odjidja-Ofoe’s wedge.
Dundalk’s owners, Andy Connolly and Paul Brown, are no different to other clubs operating within an atmosphere at home constrained by the governing body’s expenditure decisions. One glance at the paltry prize fund on offer demonstrates it’s not just the players contending for a pittance.
This crusade supplies Dundalk’s hierarchy with reason to invest and their fans substance to believe.
Allied to Kenny’s enterprise, his charges have defied the landscape they inhabit to reach a stage few expected of them.
Away goals tend to have fatal consequences for underdogs and, while this was a bridge too far, Dundalk’s class of 2016 have a few chapters still to pen.
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