Having departed Alkmaar with a melted heart, Dundalk supporters left Tallaght Stadium last night with eyefuls of pride, and with every tear went a verse of “Dundalk FC, the team for me.”
Stephen Kenny’s soldiers have yet again defied the odds. Whereas, they smashed the glass-ceiling in the Netherlands, they obliterated what remained of it in Tallaght.
It was the most perfect performance you could imagine from an Airtricity League side. Composed, controlled and creative – Maccabi never got a sniff.
You could sense that special feeling associated with Dundalk’s Europa League run around Tallaght before the match. There was something about the blaring floodlights, the resplendent pitch and Michael Duffy’s playlist that was inspiring. Something special was brewing, Tallaght had become a Dundalk suburb for the night!
For all the visitor’s intellect and refinement on the ball, they lacked that offensive cutting edge, and the bravery to go near Chris Shields. Stephen O’Donnell’s replacement gave the most complete defensive midfield performance that you are likely to see this season. His robust tackling and endless energy were to the fore as he paced the periphery of Maccabi’s attacking third time-after-time.
A team of fully fledged internationals, against what BBC Sport would have you to believe to be a line-up of part-timers, architects, electricians and teachers.
However, four years to the week that Dundalk were humiliated by Shamrock Rovers in the same South-Dublin venue, the Lilywhites prevailed against their more decorated opponents.
It was truly a professional performance, well-drawn up, full of power which resulted in Shota Arveladze’s Israelis learning a harsh lesson.
Ciaran Kilduff’s 72nd minute goal reduced some to tears, others to joy and got most to their feet as Tallaght Stadium erupted louder than it has done for some while – it was raw emotion.
People weren’t in disbelief at what was unfolding in front of them. Dundalk were like a contagious rash, all over Maccabi. They deserved the lead, they merited an even bigger advantage in all honesty. On another night, Patrick McEleney and Daryl Horgan could have been celebrating braces apiece, while I’d say Gary Rogers was shivering with the cold. It was practically a 21-man game for the match’s opening 60 minutes, with Rogers left to spectate as his side poured forward.
Kitman Noel Walsh had dressed Dundalk in their Black strip – “we always win in them.” Call it superstition, call it stupidity – it did the trick. Watching Stephen Kenny race up the touchline Mourinhoesque couldn’t but warm your heart, watching somebody enjoy their livelihood so passionately.
Maccabi, as expected, funnelled towards the Lilywhites’ goal as the match neared its conclusion, however, with the exception of Dane Massey’s heroic piece of defending, Dundalk saw out Maccabi’s laboured attacks with ease. Shields, Andy Boyle and Brian Gartland, to a man, were out-standing.
Raucous cheers emanated from the Latvian official’s full-time whistle. It was hard to describe the reaction. It wasn’t relief, ecstasy or surprise. It was more a feeling of achievement; this Dundalk team can surprise nobody anymore it seems. Breaking records is their hobby.
The ground emptied, the sound of fingers describing Dundalk’s heroic’s was all that could be heard. Down stairs there were free bottles of Coke and Heineken for anybody who wanted them, accompanied by a hug from Ciaran Callan – arguably the most passionate man in Ireland – ask AZ’s officials!
The press conference preceded the mixed zone interviews where practically every Dundalk player made themselves available for questioning. Gentlemen, the lot of them. Despite the interviewing facilities being in the coldest tunnel imaginable, the words of Ciaran Kilduff, Andy Boyle, Sean Gannon, Chris Shields, Gary Rogers, Daryl Horgan, etc. couldn’t but warm your heart.
Every one of them echoed similar sentiments about the team’s spirit, depth and quality. They weren’t rehearsed responses though, they were flowing, meaningful, passionate and brimming with belief – much like their style of play.
They are a band of brothers, one big family. Dundalk aren’t a club with a never-ending supply of wealth, exactly the opposite in fact. They rely upon community support and gate receipts. They don’t pay an army of people like Maccabi, AZ and Zenit do to video their game’s or transport the kit or maintain the pitch. It’s volunteers, it’s members of the Dundalk FC family who do so. Noel Walsh, Harry Taffee, Darren Crawley, etc.
In turn, all those who contribute to the running of the club want to see is players giving it their all and to feel appreciated by them, and by God do these group of players fit that bill. Honestly, they come across as the most humble, down-to-earth and respectful people that you are likely to encounter. Accompany their out-standing morals with their incredible ability to play football, and you have a scary combination.
Dundalk FC, the town – and indeed the whole League of Ireland – salutes you!