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The question of just who is the greatest League of Ireland team is being posed quite a lot recently.
Dundalk could likely be the answer to this question by the end of this week. The Lilywhites face four days that could be the most famous in the club’s long and successful history, with a Europa League encounter in St. Petersburg followed by an FAI Cup final where they can claim back-to-back doubles.
Dundalk recently joined Shamrock Rovers, Waterford United and Cork United as the only teams to have won three League of Ireland titles in a row. However, if they win the cup on Sunday, they will become only the second team to win consecutive league and cup doubles. Dundalk are on the verge of history.
“That is a special time in your life when you are playing Zenit St. Petersburg on a Thursday and coming back to play the cup final on Sunday,” said Stephen Kenny when he spoke with extratime.ie recently. “It is a tough ask but we will look on it a positive way.
“We’ve been telling that to the players from earlier on this season. We knew the dates and we said listen let’s go and play Zenit away and fly straight in and get ready for the cup final.
“It is a nine o’clock start over there (in Russia) so you’d be flying right through the middle night so you would lose a night’s sleep. You can’t afford to do that with the game Sunday, so we are going Tuesday to prepare and back Friday.”
Dundalk wrapped up the league title with a recent win over Bohemians, against the club where Kenny won the first of what is now four league titles. In addition to his cup win last season with the Lilywhites, he lifted that trophy at Derry City too – where he also managed the side to four league cups (with another success in the competition with Dundalk in 2014). With that success rate, Kenny is being compared to another famous Lilywhites manager Jim McLaughlin.
The Derryman’s palmarés is remarkable. McLaughlin won eight League of Ireland titles – three each at Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers, plus a title at both Derry and Shelbourne. He picked up three FAI Cup wins at Dundalk, two at Rovers and one at Derry. He also won four League Cups. So, does being mentioned in the same breath as McLaughlin showcase just what an achievement Kenny has managed with the Lilywhites?
“I know Jim as he lives in Dundalk. He was born in Derry and I knew him from my time in Derry of course. He has had a magnificent career and was always the quintessential gentleman and a brilliant man.
“I’m just trying to forge my own identity and being the best that I can be in terms of making Dundalk the best that we can be as a team. We are trying to improve all the time. Hopefully we can go and have a great week next week.”
It was interesting to hear the views of Pat Byrne who was the captain of the Shamrock Rovers mid-1980s side that won four leagues in a row. That Rovers team are often spoken about as being the greatest League of Ireland side. Talking on Newstalk’s League of Ireland podcast Byrne spoke about the importance at Rovers back then of the manager, the player’s fitness and the desire from the team to keep winning – sentiments that could easily be said about Dundalk three decades on.
“Jim (McLaughlin) was fantastic,” said Byrne. “He got everybody together and started everything off. It is all about hunger really. We had a great set of fellas who had a great desire to win things. You might win one thing one year but you still strove to win more. We were very driven.
“We were a very fit side. You would have to be under Jim McLaughlin. He made sure that people could get around the pitch. We were always in good shape and we did always prepare properly.”
While domestically Dundalk are moving into the territory of that 1980s Hoops team, in Europe they have gone well beyond them. Success for Rovers in Europe passed them completely by as they failed to win a European match during the four-in-a-row era.
Stephen Kenny’s team meanwhile have managed to retain their title with two matches to spare, all the while competing in Europe with great incredible success. They eliminated BATE Borisov in the Champions League qualifiers, effectively earning themselves a Europa League group spot.
They go into the game in Russia with four points and sit second in the Group D table. That follows their draw away to AZ Alkmaar and a home win over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Zenit had to come from behind to earn a 2-1 win in Tallaght earlier this month.
It will likely require at least another four points to assure Dundalk’s progression to the last 32 of this competition in mid-February. Bringing points back in their pockets from St. Petersburg is a big ask, but with this Dundalk side you would not be surprised.
It is 30 years since the last and only double-double was won but all Kenny is focussed on is claiming another trophy, not what it means for the history books.
“It is just brilliant to experience winning trophies,” said Kenny to extratime.ie.
“You can never get tired of it. It is something very special to win major trophies like the league title and the FAI Cup in a packed Aviva Stadium.
“It is really a magnificent feeling and difficult to explain until you experience it. It is amazing. That will be our ambition. Cork City will be tough opponents and are desperate to win the cup themselves. We have to fight tooth and nail to win.”
Byrne, who was the last League of Ireland player to play a competitive game for Ireland (until maybe Daryl Horgan gets a call up next month in Austria!), is worth listening to on the comparison between his team and this current Dundalk side.
On Newstalk he described Dundalk as “a side that is worthy of all the praise they are receiving at the moment. They are a fantastic side and great to watch.
“We had technically great players (at Rovers). They were great to play with and people said they were great to watch; similar to Dundalk at this moment. The Dundalk side deserve great credit. Stephen (Kenny) has done a wonderful job. I just hope they go further in the Europa League.”
Should Dundalk get any kind of positive result in St. Petersburg they will arrive back to Ireland with momentum that may prove very difficult for Cork City to match in the Aviva. Should the Lilywhites win the FAI Cup Final and build on their European success to date, then we will know the answer to the question of who is the greatest? Dundalk.