Stephen Kenny: “European nights capture the imagination.”
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny appeared calm and reflective ahead of Tuesday night’s UEFA Champions League second round return-leg in Dublin, stating that players with lesser character and determination would have lost last week’s opening leg by a much higher margin.
The Lilywhites welcome group-stage regulars BATE Borisov to Tallaght Stadium on account of Oriel Parks, deemed by UEFA, unsuitability for the game — following last week’s loss in Eastern Europe. By any measure last week’s 1–0 result shows Dundalk may only pose an irritable bump in the road to BATE’s self-expected journey towards Europe’s elite club competition.
But Kenny is alive and adamant to the fact that not all is lost, despite viewing few positives from last Tuesday’s result which failed to bring a crucial away goal back to Dublin meaning that Dundalk must better, or at the very least match the the Belarusians display from the tie’s opening leg, if they are to progress to a Champions League play-off in two week’s time.
“1–0 away from home is not a great result in European terms — it’s better to score away from home”, said the Dundalk manager. “Because the obvious connotations are there. Two years ago we played Hajduk Split at home and we threw the kitchen sink at them early on and conceded within the first fifteen minutes. I think one of the things we have to be careful of is that we don’t repeat that, but we still must have the ambition to score.”
That ambition to score will need to be present it its most pinpoint form if the Premier Division and FAI Cup champions are to harbour hopes of progression. Their first round second leg display despite conceding against FH Hafnarfjarðar two weeks ago showed an able resilience and willingness to attack. Hopes of a Dundalk goal are only added to given the drastic form of striker David McMillan which has seen the forward bag 9 goals in his last 5 appearances in all competitions.
Dundalk will, however, be forced to sweat over the fitness of anchoring midfield duo Ronan Finn and captain Stephen O’Donnell, with neither having trained since last Tuesday’s opening leg defeat in Belarus.
“I think they are okay”, stated Kenny. “Both Stephen and Ronan haven’t trained since last week. Stephen hyperextended his knee a bit, Ronan has a bit of a persistent groin injury, but I think they will be okay. Brian (Gartland) is still another few weeks out with the broken wrist. Everyone else is okay.”
Discontent has been voiced with the moving of the second leg away from Dundalk’s Oriel Park, but their manager feels it will not be weighing heavily on his or his players minds, despite acknowledging the heightened disadvantage for supporters of the club.
“[The club] should get the benefit of having a big European night in a provincial town. I think a big European night can have a big impact on a town. It’s a disappointment that we can’t use [Oriel Park].
“The fact that we are in Dublin here tomorrow is not a problem for us as a team. I think we are ready for the game, we’re bringing a big travelling support from Dundalk. Hopefully some of the Dublin footballing public would like to come and support the team and have a look at a Champions League game — that’s what we would hope.
“It will be a great night regardless (of the location) here. It doesn’t faise us that we are coming here (to Tallaght Stadium). But from the town’s point of view, the supporters should be at home. Not that we feel that Oriel Park is a venue that should be staging it, but I do think that it should be in Dundalk at a venue that fits the Champions League.”
Last week’s first leg showcased a side to Dundalk League of Ireland teams and supporters alike will not have known existed beneath the surface. Digging in deep and holding firm to keep the scoreline at an admirable 1–0, Kenny says that his players demonstrated a togetherness which could only serve to frustrate BATE and inspire themselves as a collective unit playing in the face of adversity.
“We showed different traits. The players, they really fought for each other. They put their bodies on the line, they showed great determination, real resoluteness, a real sense of team just ensure that tomorrow tonight is still a contest. To keep the tie alive.
“Players with lesser character would have lost 3–0 or 4–0 last week and I think we are still very much in this. And we know coming here, playing in Dublin, we know that we are still very much in with a chance. We know that we, strategically, can’t be open. We will have to tactically be sharp and understand our roles to give ourselves every chance. That’s the reality. Our approach will be measured.”
The Dundalk manager has taken the club from the brink of relegation to the First Division in 2012, winning two consecutive league titles in 2014 and 2015, adding an FAI Cup title last November with another league winner’s medal a likely possibility this season, currently sitting six points above Cork City in second.
But Kenny admits that the admiration and praise levelled towards the league’s top two clubs in European competition from outside the League of Ireland community is proof that European nights on any level can inspire.
“It captures the imagination. These nights create history — getting to the third round of the Champions League, knowing that if you win you qualify to the group-stages of a European competition.
“When you go through the teams that are in the third round, they are all major clubs, a lot of them in major European cities. For us, we are in there on merit. We earned the right to be there. So we have to capitalize and be the best we can be tomorrow night to try and get through.”