Louth is known as the Land of Legends.
It was somewhat fitting therefore that the county’s current kingpins Dundalk FC departed Dublin Airport for Minsk on Sunday afternoon on a plane called The Spirit of Cúchulainn.
Cúchulainn, of course, has strong links to the Wee County with Cúchulainn’s Castle just a short distance from Dundalk’s ground of Oriel Park.
Stephen Kenny’s side have been on quite the journey over the past few years but they can cement their own legendary status by continuing their Champions League dream against BATE Borisov in the first leg in Barysaw tonight.
A win over the Belarusian champions would leave Dundalk just one round away from becoming the first Irish team to reach the group stages of the Champions League and while there is still the safety net of Europa League football if that fails to transpire, it is not something anyone at the club is thinking about right now.
Robbie Benson believes that the two matches against BATE are about much more than Dundalk’s future though, insisting that the entire league badly needs the shot in the arm that only European progression can bring.
“That’s the only way you kind of get recognition in this country. The league doesn’t have a good reputation but you saw with the national team in the Euros how many of those players came through the league.
“It is a good league but we want to get to an even higher level again. No Irish team has ever made the group stages of the Champions League but with a good performance and maybe a bit of luck we could be the first.
“It is a shame that the league doesn’t get the attendances and the media coverage it deserves because, as well, you see Cork getting through to the third round of the Europa League qualifiers and it just shows the quality that is there. If more people got behind it then it can only grow and grow.
“Not only are we doing it for the club and for the people of Dundalk but we are the champions of Ireland and we have to represent the league the best we can so the more people that support us can give us a big lift.”
The 24-year-old from Athlone wasn’t at Dundalk when they lost out 2-1 to BATE in last year’s second qualifying round. Instead, he was completing an actuarial science degree at UCD which leaves him well placed to weigh up the opportunity his side have.
“I watched the game back there during the week to have a look at how they got on but not alone did they give a good account of themselves, they were the better team for large portions of the game.
“This team has come a long way in the last few years and they’re getting better and better. European progress is now the next step for this group of players. They’ve won the league for the last two years and getting to the group stage of European competition is something we’re all trying to achieve together.
“You want to be playing at the highest level that you can be. BATE got to the group stages of the Champions League last year and played against Barcelona and beat Roma so they’re a top quality side in their own right but having run them so close last year just shows the quality we have in our side.
“You have to still be in the tie for the second leg, that’s crucial, but the gaffer is lining us up in the best way he sees fit to try and beat them. We know we have the comfort of a Europa League qualifier if things don’t go our way but we can’t be holding onto that. This is our time to get through to the Champions League and it’s a great carrot to get through to the end.”
Brian Gartland is the only absentee for Dundalk for the clash with BATE with a wrist injury.
Rogers; Gannon, Barrett, Boyle, Massey; McEleney, Benson, O’Donnell, Horgan; Finn; McMillan.
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