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During last night’s Europe League anthem at Tallaght Stadium, students from the De La Salle College in Dundalk kept up tradition by swaying the flag with the competition emblem embroidered on it in the centre circle.
The De La Salle are the third school to have been given the opportunity to play their part in Dundalk’s Europa League run with Dundalk Grammar School and the Coláiste Rís having done so in the games with Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Zenit St. Petersburg.
It has been a nice touch from Dundalk to offer local students the chance to savour the club’s ground-breaking European experience up close, and it’s surely something that none of the students will be quick to forget.
It seems fitting though that last night’s part-takers were afforded the opportunity with the De La Salle having produced many past and present Lilywhites. Indeed, current players Anton Reilly and the O’Connor brothers, Ciaran and Michael, are past pupils of the school which is set on the outskirts of the town.
‘Recta Sapere’, latin for ‘knowing what is right’, is the motto on the school’s badge, a phrase which seems fitting when assessing the predicament that the Lilywhites find themselves in ahead of their December 8th showdown with Maccabi on the sweltering Mediterranean seaboard.
All of Europe knows that it would be ‘right’ for Dundalk to take their place in the last 32 of the continent’s secondary club competition. The neutrals agree that they have been the best, and most consistent team across the five games apart from the irrepressible Russian machine who are Zenit.
Zenit manager Mircea Lucescu, in his fifth decade as a coach, said blatantly that Dundalk were the best team that his charges had faced in Europe this term.
Al Jazerra, Sky and BT Sport(s) and the BBC have all latched onto their marvellous story. The rags to riches tale. Stephen Kenny says what they have done surpasses the great achievements of Leicester City in winning last year’s Premier League.
The moral is that it would be ‘right’ if Dundalk were to take their place in the last-32 of the Europa League come February, but I suppose not everyone always gets their just rewards – such examples are plentiful, Louth in the 2010 Leinster Final, Dundalk in the cup final, Michael Conlon at the summer Olympics – the list goes on.
Reviewing last night’s game Dundalk can have no complaints. The ‘right’ result was reached and AZ won, the scoreline could have been uglier had it not been for Gary Rogers.
Like in St. Petersburg three weeks ago, the keeper saved Dundalk on numerous occasions to keep them in with a chance of nicking one at the other end. Whereas Dane Massey and Patrick McEleney had chances in both games against Zenit to put Dundalk in a dominant position in the group, nobody will rue a guilt-edged chance from last night – there were none.
AZ dominated with the exception of a 15-minute spell before the interval where the Lilywhites were able to establish a slight foothold on proceedings. Ronan Finn began to put in the performance that we are so used to seeing from him this season.
Daryl Horgan has grabbed the headlines, the plaudits and the awards on top of an international call-up, but Finn has been equally, if not more, integral to Dundalk this year.
Having suffered in the shadow of the mercurial talent that was Richie Towell during his debut season in 2015, Finn has really come to the fore in his absence.
Ronan ran the show for the first half-an-hour in Russia and stole the show with his performance against Maccabi. What a player.
Elsewhere last night you had Brian Gartland and Andy Boyle at their towering best. Tweedled dee and tweedled dum, a symbiotic pairing.
However, elsewhere on the pitch the Lilywhites were second best.
It was the first occasion where they looked like the stereo-typical league of Ireland team, full-blooded and determined but lacking in the final third and waning as the match progressed. How their 49-game season to that point seemed to have taken its toll.
Stephen O’Donnell hobbled about like a damaged war veteran in midfield, still the calm head in the midst of others in an agitated state, but it was clear that he was labouring and duly was called ashore before half-time.
Dundalk’s magic man Patrick McEleney was also below his best, assumedly struggling with the same muscle complaints which have plagued him over the past number of months, while Chris Shields was missing altogether.
Say what you like about the standard of AZ, they clearly are not going to give Barcelona a game anytime soon, but they were ready for Dundalk. Certainly, more prepared than they were in September when Ciaran Kilduff seemed to derail their season in grabbing his injury time equaliser.
The consequences of last night’s defeat for Dundalk are that they drop to third, or joint-bottom of the group depending on whether you’re a glass half full or empty person, and out of the qualification places.
A score draw with Maccabi may be enough should Zenit take the three-points from the AFAS Stadion in Alkmaar, but you surely cannot approach the game with that attitude. I suppose though when do Dundalk ever approach games with that mentality!
A win is a must. A win and it is just possible that the town could be looking forward to a Spring date with another European heavyweight at the Aviva Stadium. Dundalk deserve that, we deserve that for we ‘know what is right.’