Caoimhin Reilly reports from Alkmaar.
With a melted heart and bleary eyes, Dundalk’s raucous travelling contingent head back to the Oriel province having firmly fallen in love with their team following its exploits in Alkmaar last night.
It was a trip that was made in hope by almost 1,000 Irishmen and women. They hoped that their team would make a fist of it, and possibly even avoid defeat. This Extratime.ie reporter was confident all along though, my tongue-in-cheek prediction said that the Lilywhites would secure an historic group stage point, my forecast being a 1-1 draw.
Although when I made this point after the game on the Whatsapp group specifically set-up for the Irish media gurus, the response was less flattering. I think it went by: “Send it to us this afternoon when it could have made us money!”
Nonetheless, the entire experience of the Netherlands, the AFAS Stadion and Alkmaar city centre itself was extraordinary. Having set off from Dublin on Wednesday evening, one sensed that something special was brewing, especially when the news broke of how Stephen Kenny rescued a convoy of stranded Lilywhite followers half way up the M1: “Hop on lads.” After three-and-a-half years of bringing unparalled success to the club, who was going to argue with the man heralded as ‘King Kenny.’
By the time myself and a smaller group of visiting supporters had managed to get ourselves mixed up in the highly efficient Dutch railway service, the party was in full flow in Alkmaar, and pockets of Amsterdam. The Amrath Hotel, minutes from the city centre and train station in the northern Dutch city seemed to be the hotel of choice for the Lilywhite lodgers – God bless its night-porter!
As Thursday morning arrived, I decided to take a stroll into the heart of Alkmaar. A city comprised of canals, streets, cycle-lanes and extraordinary architecture was soon to be the hub of all activity related to Dundalk FC. At 10am, the pubs were open!
My next port of call was the AFAS Stadion itself. It had everything – aesthetically remarkable, fit-for-purpose and logistically sound – a modern day Oriel Park! I entered the ground exactly seven hours prior to kick-off, so I had plenty of time to enjoy it all.
In all honesty though, AZ can be extremely proud of their home, and of their people. I don’t think I’ve ever been greeted as warmly at a ground in my short reporting life: no request was too demanding and the Pepsi that was distributed, free-of-charge, was the finest detail!
The club shop, named after AZ legend, Kristen Nygaard, was slightly more decorated than anything an Irish club could boast, although this was evident by the prices that they were charging, hence my swift exit from that department.
The hallway, plastered by photographs of academy players and successful AZ teams from the past, lined the entrance into the Louis Van Gaal Café. It was again superbly choreographed and everything was catered for to the nth degree, the napkins even had AZ logos!
Enough of the rambling, following my visit to the accreditation pick-up point I proceeded into the press-box of the stadium itself while speaking to every AZ official that I could find, amercing myself fully in the whole experience.
While I was finding my bearings, Alkmaar’s Irish contingency multiplied, the atmosphere was supposedly electric in the city centre, as along the main canal, a constant stream of alcohol was distributed. No trouble, no issues, no problems, just hundreds of hysteric Louthmen and women enjoying themselves – who was to know that that wasn’t to be the most enjoyable part of the night.
Finally, kick-off approached, the stadium filled, the atmosphere built. It was all steady until 6:30 local time, then the shouts of ‘C’mon the Town’ emanated from the pits of the turn-styles. The Lilywhite bandwagon had arrived!
The teams came out onto the pitch, the visiting crowd were still singing, the home following exploded to life and the Europa League anthem blared out of the PA system. The hair was literally static on the back of my neck, what an atmosphere. To add to it all, I was sitting in the company of Tony O’Donoghue and of course, Barry Landy!
Whereas the AZ support were boisterous at the out-set, they were critical at the interval. Their hostile whistles sent their team off the pitch in dismay. Dundalk had them now I thought, all that was needed was a goal, their play had been excellent.
All of that positivity was evaporated over a ten minute second-half spell though. AZ scored, and Stephen O’Donnell was dismissed for a second caution.
Dundalk were crestfallen, the atmosphere was subdued following the injury sustained by AZ goal scorer, Stijn Wuytens in the process of the ball hitting the net. All from the Emerald Isle sensed that the Lilywhites were going to miss a glorious opportunity to register a first point in European football.
However, thanks to Ciaran Kilduff, we no longer felt the need to use our seat. Everybody, and I mean everybody with an Irish passport that attended the game, whether they were the Dublin media gang, Tony from Cork or Gavin from the heart of Dundalk. We were all up and joining in with the celebrations, 1-1! Dundalk media officer Darren Crawley even managed to reach the touchline as Kilduff wheeled away in delight, and he was supposed to be at his desk on a laptop!
Nine dreadfully painful minutes past in the aftermath of the original 90. AZ missed a catalogue of glorious opportunities to break Dundalk’s resolve once more. The Lilywhites defended manfully with Chris Shields operating like a man possessed, blocking, kicking, heading and hassling every ball that AZ launched.
The Maltese referee finally ended the match minutes before 10pm, the reaction was truly unbelievable. Dundalk had done it; they had broken the glass-ceiling. Incredible, Outrageous, wonderful – no amount of superlatives can do the result justice. This team is just beyond words.
The post-match press conference and mixed-zone with the players was equally as enjoyable. Stephen Kenny beamed with pride as he shared a moment with every awaiting journalist, while Ciaran Kilduff, filled with emotion and shaking with excitement, showed his gentlemanliness, vividly describing the events of his goal before gratefully shaking hands with everyone who listened to him.
Those who listened to him recalling the events of his injury hell throughout the season – one can only feel admiration for him, nobody deserves that goal more than him. The taxi journey back to the hotel was lively to say the least – one unnamed journalist echoed from the back seat that this Dundalk team have continually produced the best Irish performances in European football, and the majority of those have come this season.
It’s hard to argue with those thoughts, especially seeing as they have suffered defeat on only two occasions throughout their seven match journey to date – a record that is incomparable with any other Irish club to have had a go at continental football.
As I returned to the hotel bar to finish my reporting duties for the night, the bartender offered us 'travelling Dundalk fans' a drink free of charge. It was the perfect way to finish a perfect night. The craic was mighty between the Lilywhites and the locals, the jukebox was in full flow and the sing-song was on its way. What a night!
And now as the return flight, full with tired Dundalk souls, descends back onto Irish soil and the day-to-day reality sets back in, we all feel contented in the knowledge that we were present on a landmark night for Dundalk Football Club. It really will go down as an ‘I was there’ moment.