Stephen Kenny believes Dundalk qualifying for the knockout stages of the Europa League would eclipse Leicester’s shock Premier League title win.
“I think what we are achieving is on a much greater scale,” the Lilywhites boss said in a pre-match press conference at Tallaght ahead of tonight’s game with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar.
“From our point of view, no one gave us a chance of getting a point in the group.
“We still have a lot to do to get through... but this is a journey where we’ve come from nowhere and we understand where we have come from — we have nothing.
“We’ve come from the bottom of our own league to win three in a row and now to be on the verge of qualifying for the last 32.
“We are very determined to achieve that.”
Martin O’Neill spoke recently about how his table-topping Ireland are reaping the benefits of a growing club spirit within the ranks.
You could argue that there’s something of the process happening in reverse with Dundalk, a league-winning club which has taken on an international dimension thanks to an unprecedented European adventure.
“We are Ireland’s representatives, so in that regard we are representing our country,” says Kenny with feeling. “I tell the players that nearly every day. They do understand that.”
He also tells them about his own experiences of how Dundalk have captured the imagination of the wider Irish public.
“I met someone the other day and they said they’re in west Clare, and in the village they’re in they’re all following Dundalk,” he relates. “And an ex-referee stopped me the other day, said he’s from Edenderry and that the people in Edenderry don’t really follow League of Ireland but they’re following Dundalk in a major way. We’re getting that kind of feeling in a lot of places. We won’t want that to end. That’s another motivation for us to try and continue this journey.”
It also matters to Kenny that his side represents Irish football in a progressive way — and that too, he thinks, has struck a popular chord.
“We’re the lowest-ranked team in the competition but they’re not seeing a team playing a traditional way, preventing a team nicking a goal and putting in a strong defensive performance,” he observes. “They’re seeing a team of players expressing themselves and trying to take on top-class international players consistently and with confidence. Saying, ‘give us everything you have and whatever you have, we can deal with it and we can cause you problems’. Not, ‘how can we strategically set out to stop you playing?’.
“We’re saying, ‘give it your best and we’ll deal with it and try to dominate the game ourselves’.”
So the plan is for the same again against AZ Alkmaar, a side whose current last place in Group D means defeat to Dundalk would end their involvement in the Europa League. Win, lose or draw, the Lilywhites know their chances of qualifying for the knockout stage will go to the last night next month, when they play Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel — though their chances would be helped considerably should Zenit have already beaten Maccabi in St Petersburg before the match in Tallaght kicks off tonight.
Even though Dundalk drew 1-1 with AZ in the away game despite being reduced to 10 men, Kenny says he is under no illusions about the scale of the test which will be presented by a team fighting for its European life and which he judges to be one of the Dutch “top four” after Ajax, Feyenoord, and PSV Eindhoven.
“AZ can really hurt you because they play with four forwards,” he says. “Certainly they are very attacking. The other side of that is they do give you chances on the counter-attack. For us to get a result, our back four have to play well, because they are going to be four-on-four. They have to stand up and really win their individual battles. If our back four can do that, then we can get a real platform in the game with our midfield and get 20 passes. We can get control of it. That’s the way I feel about that.”
However, with midfield injury worries over Stephen O’Donnell, Ronan Finn and Chris Shields — all of whom were being closely assessed in training at Tallaght yesterday — Kenny won’t make a final call on his selection until closer to kick-off.
With the exception of injured centre-half Rens van Eijden, AZ are at full strength. Manager John van der Brom declares: “We’re in good shape and ready to play. The most difficult part, because we have to win, is to keep our organisation in the team. It’s not necessary to win the game in the first ten minutes, you can also do it in the last ten.”
But the Dutch coach also knows that Dundalk will have plenty to say about that..
“They are a very good team,” he says. “They play football. It’s not kick and rush. They want to play, they want to pass. It’s not the British style, it’s the Dutch style.”
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