Dundalk Head Towards The Big Time
There seems to be something about underdogs this year. Whether it be Leicester City winning the Premier League or Portugal wining the European Championships, it has frequently felt as though 2016 has seen more of its fair share of surprises, and that trend certainly continued last night in the qualifying rounds for the 2016/17 Champions League, when the Irish club Dundalk through conventional wisdom aside with a three-nil win against the Belarusian club BATE Borisov to put themselves one tie and one hundred and eighty minutes away from a place in the group stages of the Champions League.
BATE Borisov have occasionally been considered makeweights in the group stages of the Champions League in recent years, but that certainly shouldn’t detract from the scale of Dundalk’s win last night. BATE have been the Belarusian champions for the last ten successive seasons, and in recent seasons have beaten Villareal, Anderlecht, Everton, Bayern Munich and Roma (amongst others) in European matches. BATE won the first leg in Barysaw by a goal to nil, and last night’s match had to be moved from Dundalk’s Oriel Park to the Tallaght Arena, the south Dublin home of Shamrock Rovers. Sixty miles is a long way to travel for a home match, but it seems unlikely that Dundalk supporters will be complaining about this too much, as a three-nil win there in the second leg saw them through to the final round of qualifiers for this season’s Champions League.
That place in the Champions League group stages is certainly an ambition, but the club has already achieved a place in the group stages of this year’s Europa League, a prize which in itself has already been reported as being worth almost £6m plus £100,000 per point once there, a not inconsiderable amount of money for a club of this size. A place in the Champions League, meanwhile, would be worth £10m plus around £420,000 per point earned once there. The draw for the next round will be made on Friday 5th August, with matches to be played on the weeks commencing the fifteenth and twenty-second of August. The draw for the group stages of the competition will be made on the twenty-fifth of August, should they still be in the competition, and the following day should they be competing in the Europa League.
None of this, of course, is to suggest that Dundalk are novices, when it comes to European football. The club made its European debut in the 1962/63 European Cup where, after having lost their first leg match against FC Zurich by three goals to nil at Dalymount Park in Dublin, they at least earned the consolation of becoming the first Irish club to win a European match in winning the return match in Switzerland by two goals to one. Since then, the club has played some illutrious opposition in European competitions, including Liverpool, Rangers, Hadjuk Split, Ajax, Porto and Red Star Belgrade. If the club had a golden period in European competition prior to this season, however, this probably came at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s.
In the 1979/80 European Cup, the club was drawn to play Celtic in the second round of the European Cup. By half-time in the first leg at Celtic Park, the home side were comfortably ahead by three goals to nil, but a spirited second half revival saw them reduce Celtic’s lead to three-two. The second leg was played in front of a crowd of 17,000 people at Oriel Park, but Dundalk could only manage a goalless draw when one goal would have been enough to see them through to the quarter-finals of the competition and a match against Real Madrid. Two years later, they came as close again to a major surprise, this time in the European Cup Winners Cup against Tottenham Hotspur. Having drawn the first leg of the match one-all, a crowd of over 33,000 at White Hart Lane people saw a full-strength Spurs team – who had been expected to win the return match by a hatful – rely on a deflected Garth Crooks goal to finally edge their way through to the next round of the competition.
Last night, however, saw one of the greatest results in the history of the club. Having lost the first leg by a goal to nil wasn’t an ideal position to be going into the return match – the lack of an away goal can prove to be too much for teams to overcome – but two goals from David McMillan and a third from Robbie Benson, who had come on as a substitute, was enough to earn them a comfortable win. The club have been the champions of Ireland for the last two years, but this recent run of success comes at the end of a fairly barren spell by their own standards. Dundalk’s 2014 League of Ireland title – they have now been the champions of Ireland on eleven occasions, stretching back to 1933 – was the club’s first in almost two decades. They won the League of Ireland Cup in the same season, but these trophies were the club’s first silverware since winning the FAI Cup in 2002. This level of success, we might conclude, has been a long time coming.
This stage of the Champions League often thows up quirky results, and Dundalk’s Champions League adventure is far from over just yet. Perhaps a little sluggishness on the part of clubs who haven’t played much competitive football since the end of last season will play into the hands of a team that is just over halfway through a programme that runs through the summer, and it’s worth bearing in mind that, regardless of the result of their next tie, Dundalk are now guaranteed European football until December, thanks to their place in – at least – the group stages of the Europa League. And with the club six points clear at the top of the League of Ireland, it seems likely that this season will end with more silverware, regardless of what happens in the Champions League over the next couple of weeks. For now, though, whilst the money will be welcome, those connected with the club could be excused somewhat more romantic ideas flickering through their minds. And why shouldn’t they? The club has, after all, thoroughly deserved the acclaim that it is now receiving after such an excellent performance last night.
You can see brief highlights of Dundalk’s 1981 European Cup Winners Cup second leg match against Tottenham Hotspur by clicking here.
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