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Updated 14 September
Undiscovered territory awaits Dundalk this week when they debut in the Europa League group stages with a trip to the Netherlands on Thursday to take on AZ Alkmaar. The back-to-back League of Ireland champions, having suffered heart-breaking elimination in the Champions League play-off by Legia Warsaw, are now looking to make their mark in Europe’s secondary club competition.
Stephen Kenny’s men meanwhile will also be seeking to retain their league crown – a three-peat if you will – to become only the fourth club to win three League of Ireland titles in a row and the first to do so since Shamrock Rovers’ four-in-a-row side of the mid-1980s. If they can win the league while playing in Europe and facing such a fiendish fixture schedule, it would could cement their place as the best ever League of Ireland side.
It is of course not unchartered waters for Irish football as five years ago Shamrock Rovers became the first Irish side to qualify for the Europa League and reviewing their campaign five years on provides some context for the difficult challenge that awaits Dundalk.
Group stage opponents
The Lilywhites' first Group D game is away to AZ (ranked 44 in Europe), who were the highest ranking second seeds in the draw, a team who qualified for the group stages for the third time in four years.
Dundalk are also drawn against Zenit St. Petersburg, the second highest ranked team in the competition, and a team who made the knock out stages of the Champions League in each of the last four years. Winners of the 2008 UEFA Cup, the forerunner for the Europa League, they have won three Russian titles in the intervening years and are the reigning Russian Cup holders.
They have a squad full of internationals including the Belgian player Alex Witsel who scored against Ireland in Euro 2016. Dundalk’s ‘keeper Gary Rogers has of course gained valuable experience being part of the Ireland squad for the recent Russia 2018 World Cup qualifier against Serbia.
Maccabi Tel Aviv are the final team in the group and a side who missed out on the Israeli league title by just two points last season, having won the championship the three previous seasons. Not an easy group then!
Dundalk went into the draw the lowest ranked team still in the competition. It was a similar case for Rovers in 2011 when they were drawn against the top seeds in the competition that year Spurs, along with Russian side Rubin Kazan (ranked 62). Kazan won the Russian championship in 2008 and 2009. Also in the group were PAOK from Thessaloniki, the team who had finished second in the Greek Super League the previous season.
At a minimum Dundalk will play 16 games between Thursday 15 September and the end of their extended season on 8 December. That is a minimum of nine league, six Europa League and one FAI Cup match - with 14 of those games squeezed into the next 50 days.
However, depending on their progression in the FAI Cup, if they require a semi-final replay and qualify for the final, they could end up playing two more. This would give them a ceiling of 55 competitive matches for the season (five less than Shamrock Rovers played in 2011).
Dundalk postponed games early in their European campaign, not playing a league fixture for four weeks from 5 July and 5 August. That no doubt helped their progress but has given them major fixture congestion for the next two months. Rovers played two league fixtures during that time in 2011. Like Dundalk, the Hoops did have some unsuccessful discussions with the FAI regarding extending the 2011 season.
“We did have matches cancelled and that’s a good help,” said Stephen Kenny speaking last week about their fixture arrangements. “It just means that you are going into the Europa League with both arms tied around your back, really.
“There is no way you can play to the level that you need to play to if it is your fifth game in 14 days. But there is no real option because we are victims of our own success. I’m not whining about it and I don’t want any moaning.”
Draft Dundalk Schedule to end of season
Day Date Competition Opponent Home / Away
Thursday 15 Sep EL AZ Alkmaar A
Tuesday 20 Sep LOI Shamrock Rovers H
Friday 23 Sep LOI Derry City H
Thursday 29 Sep EL Maccabi Tel Aviv H
Sunday 2 Oct FAI Derry City H
Tuesday 5 Oct LOI Longford Town 1 A
Friday 7 Oct LOI Sligo Rovers H
Monday 10 Oct LOI St. Patrick’s Athletic 2 A
Friday 14 Oct LOI Shamrock Rovers A
Monday 17 Oct LOI Bohemians 2 H
Thursday 20 Oct EL Zenit St. Petersburg H
Monday 24 Oct LOI Cork City2 H
Friday 28 Oct LOI Galway United H
Thursday 3 Nov EL Zenit St. Petersburg A
Thursday 24 Nov EL AZ Alkmaar H
Thursday 8 Dec EL Maccabi Tel Aviv A
- Possible date for FAI Cup semi-final replay against Derry City. If replay required, the Longford Town match will be re-fixed for a later date.
- Possible re-arranged fixture for Dundalk against St. Patrick’s Athletic, Bohemians and Cork City.
Europa League Experience
Four of the current Dundalk squad played with Rovers in the 2011 season. Stephen O’Donnell, Ronan Finn and Ciarán Kilduff all got significant game time in the group stages of the Europa League, with Sean Gannon playing five games with Rovers but none in Europe that season. Those players will bring that valuable experience to bear as they begin their group stage journey.
Despite the Aviva Stadium being mentioned as a possible Europa League venue for Dundalk this year and Rovers back in 2011, Tallaght Stadium will be hosting its second series of group stage games. Five years ago Shamrock Rovers installed 2,000 additional seats to bring it over the 8,000 capacity required for this stage of the competition.
Rovers sold match tickets as a €70 match package but of the home games, only the match against Spurs saw the stadium at capacity. A big factor in that was that the Hoops were saddled with 6pm kick offs in Tallaght. Dundalk are thankful that all their home games in the venue are at 8.05pm which will suit the ‘traveling’ home support as well as attracting the curious Dublin football punter who will want to attend the games.
It appears they may get an exemption regarding having 8,000 seats. For the BATE Borisov game in Tallaght, Dundalk attracted a crowd in excess of 5,000 and their aim will be to fill the stadium to its 6,000 capacity.
With an additional six European games to be shoe-horned into an extended season, the depth of Dundalk’s squad is a concern. In 2011 Rovers manager Michael O’Neill brought in a player from an obscure league and a 31-year-old player from Scottish football and Stephen Kenny has done likewise.
Out of retirement comes Alan Keane who has been lining out for a GAA Club in the Sligo Intermediate League since leaving Sligo Rovers at the end of last season. Meanwhile Kenny has also added former Rangers player Dean Shiels to his squad. Five years ago Rovers brought in Rohan Ricketts who had made 30 Premier League appearances with Spurs earlier in his career but his previous clubs prior to Rovers were in Moldova and German Regional League. Left back Jim Patterson also came into Rovers squad for the rest of that season.
Ricketts turned out to only play a peripheral part in the European campaign starting only one group game (with Patterson starting four) with his major contribution being the winning league goal at home against Derry City in their crucial victory in the penultimate home game of the 2011 campaign.
Rovers earned an unenviable record that season as they became the first team in the Europa League to lose all six games even if they were competitive in all bar the final group game, a 4-0 loss to Spurs. In the opening match against Rubin Kazan, the Hoops found themselves 1-0 down after just three minutes with Obefemi Martins opening the scoring. The fact that they were up against a player who had cost the Russian side €17m showed how they were stepping up in quality of opposition from the domestic game. The Hoops lost that match 3-0 with Stephen O’Donnell missing a penalty.
White Hoops Lane
The highlight of the European campaign for Rovers was certainly the trip to White Hart Lane to play against the superstars of Spurs. It is a pity for Dundalk that they do not have such a high profile team to travel to or bring back to Ireland to play.
0-0 at half time in London, the 4,000 or so traveling Rovers support were in heaven when Stephen Rice gave them a 50th minute lead. Harry Redknapp sent Gareth Bale, Luca Modric and Harry Kane out to warm up but the Hoops had only proceeded to poke the bear. Spurs scored three times soon after, in a six minute period, to win the match with goals from Jermain Defoe, Roman Pavlyuchecnko and Giovanni dos Santos.
The closest Rovers got to getting a result in any group game was on the trip to Thessaloniki when Karl Sheppard equalised early in the second half in Greece. Just after the hour mark Vieirinha, a Euro 2016 champion with Portugal, scored the winner for PAOK. The consolation for Rovers was that they returned to Ireland to wrap up back-to-back league titles just a few days later. The week after the season ended, the Hoops lost 3-1 at home to the same side.
Money, Money, Money
Some viewed Rovers’ qualification as a game changer for the League of Ireland at the time but the prize money they earned then was a fraction of what Dundalk will bank (albeit that Dundalk deservedly will earn more due to the progression through an extra round of the Champions League compared with Rovers).
The Hoops earned approximately €1.7m but missed out on any performance bonus which then was €70,000 for a draw and double that for a win. Dundalk will earn in excess of €6m for their European exploits to date but they also have the chance to pick up further cash with €360,000 for a win and €120,000 on offer for each draw (€10,000 more than the prize money for winning the SSE Airtricity League outright).
Dundalk domestic priorities
If Dundalk are to get another shot at becoming the first League of Ireland side to qualify for the Champions League, winning the title is a prerequisite (or else they just need to win the Europa League outright!). In 2011 Shamrock Rovers entered September with a two point lead over Derry City and five points over Sligo with a game in hand on both. Remarkably each league game they played following a match in Europe that year they won, as they wrapped up the title by four points from Sligo with a match to spare.
Dundalk now have a ten point gap over Cork City who have two games in hand on the Lilywhites. Stephen Kenny knows the difficulty that his team faces but there is a great prize that awaits them if they can win the title. “On one hand you can look at it and think that it’s disappointing not to be have been able to have a proper go at the European thing. The other thing is to win the league title three times in a row while playing in Europe…”
It is interesting to read former Shamrock Rovers player Stephen Rice’s view (speaking in 2013) when he looked back at what Rovers achieved in 2011. “After we qualified, we had a meeting with Michael (O’Neill) and the players. I remember me and Dan Murray (the Rovers captain) saying ‘look the whole Europe thing won’t mean anything, if we don’t win the league’.
“We never let it get away from us. We were realistic. We weren’t going to lift a trophy at the end of the European thing. We weren’t going to be the best team in the country if we didn’t win the league. It was important for us as we wanted to say we were the best team in country.”
FAI Cup to make fixture farce?
The Lilywhites may have to deal with the possibility of an FAI Cup final in the Aviva Stadium just three days after their group game in St. Petersburg; Dundalk who are the defending cups holder play away to UCD in the quarter-final this Friday. “We’ve said to the players what a finale to the season to fly home from Russia into Lansdowne...land on the pitch and get ready!” joked Stephen Kenny. If his team can make it back-to-back doubles and three-in-a-row in the league, that would be the stuff of dreams but they will need to overcome a fixture nightmare to do that.
The dark days of November and December
One of the difficulties Dundalk will face in the group stages will be playing their final two group games well into the normal off season. Their final home game is on 24 November against AZ before a trip to Tel Aviv to take on Maccabi a fortnight later. They played the 2016 season opener in the President’s Cup way back on 27 February.
In 2011 Shamrock Rovers arranged an away friendly at the end of November against Malmo – another side in the Europa League group stages whose domestic season was over. The following week Rovers lost 4-1 away to Rubin Kazan, playing in temperatures close to -10.
Dundalk will play out their final game in Tel Aviv where the average high temperature is a very pleasant 18 degrees. On their return to Dublin they will have clocked up over 25,000km in the air from their six European away games after an incredible 2016.
A previous version of this article was originally published on 7 September with revision showing updated fixture list following FAI Cup semi-final draw.
Caoimhin Reilly will be in the Netherlands for extratime.ie on Thursday to cover the AZ Alkmaar v Dundalk game live from the AFAS Stadion.