The standard line from footballers is that you treat every game the same but, with the best wishes of Martin O’Neill ringing in their ears, the news that President Michael D. Higgins will be in attendance and, as of yesterday, around 23,000 tickets already sold, there’s no escaping the reality that the footballers of Dundalk will be contesting the highest stakes match of their lives when they take to the Aviva Stadium pitch to play Legia Warsaw in their Champions League play-off first leg tomorrow evening.
The tie is Dundalk’s reward for already exceeding expectations by sensationally dumping BATE Borisov out in the last round, the Lilywhites 3-0 win in Tallaght — having lost the away leg 1-0 — being widely acclaimed as the best performance ever in Europe by a League of Ireland side.
“We’re always confident in our ability and in the group that we have,” says full-back Sean Gannon. “But to beat BATE was an unbelievable night for Irish football and I think the whole country got behind us. We do sometimes stop and think about where we are but I think we’re here on merit, to be honest. I think we deserved to go through against BATE for the second leg performance.
“To win 3-0 and play the way we did — if you’d said that before the game, I don’t know that I would have believed you. But we ended up doing it. It was by far the best night in my career. Winning the league on the last game of the season against Cork in my first season with Dundalk, and winning the double last year, were both unbelievable memories. But I just think beating BATE was that bit more satisfying because nobody gave us a chance in the second leg.”
And now the goal is to do it again — and make history by becoming the first Irish club to reach the group stages of the Champions League — against a Legia Warsaw side which supplied three members of Poland’s Euro 2016 squad.
“Yeah, listen, we’re at the stage in the competition where, no matter who we get, they’re going to be a top team,” says the 25-year-old Dubliner, who formerly played for Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic. “But we’ve got good players as well. We know when we get on the ball that we can hurt teams. We’ve done a lot of work on Legia so we know what their strengths and weaknesses are and, hopefully, over the two legs we can come up with a plan to go through.”
It has to be said, however, that preparations on the field haven’t been ideal for Dundalk, the champions choosing a bad time to lose successive matches in the SSE Airtricity Premier Division for the first time in three years. Unless, of course, it was all a cunning strategy to lull the Polish champions into a false sense of security?
“No, definitely not,” Gannon replies with a rueful laugh. “We’re upset about the last two games. It’s not like us. Because we’re not taking our eye off the ball with the league. It’s the main objective for us. And the manager that we have, he won’t let us get complacent and he’ll never let us take our eye off the ball, which is why he’s been at us over the last couple of days to put things right. And that’s what we have to do.”
And Sean Gannon is confident that Stephen Kenny’s team can take hope from home advantage playing in the national stadium tomorrow night.
“The occasion will be brilliant and everybody’s families will be there, so if you don’t get up for this game, then you never will,” he says. “There are a lot of emotions involved but I think in big games — such as in league run-ins and when the pressure is on — we have answered any questions asked. I don’t think that there will be any fear going into the game. I have confidence in ourselves. We’ll be positive and hopefully we will take the game to Legia and come out on top.”
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