There is no doubt that over the past couple of weeks it has been a roller coaster of emotions for every Dundalk fan. The highs and the not so many lows have had most of the footballing world in Ireland sitting on the edge of their seats. This past week has seen the Lillywhites play Longford Town, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Bohemians. The two league games in which they faced Longford and Bohemians saw Stephen Kenny’s men edge nearer the title. Going into the three games you had to worry about fatigue and how the back log of matches was going to effect the players fitness. One thing though that was for certain was the fact that chasing the big prizes both domestically and in Europe would give a bit more adrenalin for the fight ahead.
First up in another trilogy of games for Dundalk was an away trip to Longford Town. The home side knew a defeat would mean relegation and Dundalk knew a win would be another step towards the title. It was very clear to see from the start that this was going to be a win for the away side, as they totally controlled the game from the start. It was not long before we had to wait for a goal and it duly arrived in the fifteenth minute when Massey put the league leaders one up. One became two in the forty first minute when Dave McMillan added his name to the scoresheet. Dundalk were strolling to another victory and the scoring was completed by Daryl Horgan in the second half. It really was a men against boys match and you could clearly see why Longford were now about to be relegated. With the game well and truly won early on, it gave manager Stephen Kenny a chance to use all his substitutes and gave him the luxury of resting players, with the Zenith game in the Europa League looming. When the news filtered through after the match that Saint Patrick,s Athletic had beaten Dundalk,s nearest rivals Cork three one, you could hear the champagne been put into the ice bucket as Stephen Kenny,s men were now seven points clear at the top of the table. All that would be required now was a win against Bohemians and the title was their,s once again. That game would have to wait as next up for Dundalk was a Europa League game against Zenith Saint Petersburg.
You could tell it was a very special night when Zenith came to town to play Dundalk last Thursday night in the Europa League. As I have informed you before, Dundalk have to play their Europa League games in Tallaght, the home of Shamrock Rovers. The game was due to kick off at 8.05pm but the streets around the ground were packed from early in the evening as the fans arrived in their thousands to witness the game. It was not only Dundalk fans who travelled to watch the match but Irish football fans came out on the night as well. The game was a sell out and if the Tallaght stadium had a bigger capacity you could have sold a lot more tickets. As I sat in the press box I looked around at all the top class journalists that were covering the game and realised how nobody wanted to miss out on such a magnificent occasion. The game was broadcast on live TV in 37 different countries which just showed the huge interest.
Dundalk got off to a flying start and possibly should have gone one nil up when Ronan Finn missed an opportunity from a tight angle, now what a start would have been. The way that Stepen Kenny had set up his side was allowing Zenith plenty of pocession but they where doing nothing with it. Going in at half time, with the score nil all you felt the home side had to be happy, because everyone I spoke to before the game were of the same opinion as me that a draw on the night would be a fabulous result. Seven minutes into the second half a shot from long range from Robbie Benson found the back of the net as the Zenith keeper made a blunder to allow the ball go under his body, unbelievable. It was another goalkeeping mistake that let Zenith back into the game when Dundalk keeper Sava put a ball up in the air only for it to land at the foot of a Zenith players foot who picked out Mak, who duly scored. All the good work had been undone by a dreadful error and it was game on again. Massey came extremely close to putting the home side back in front, when hit the post with a header. In the seventy seventh minute Zenit scored the goal that was to eventually win the game, Giuliano and Witsel combined at high speed to totally unlock the Dundalk and Giuliano scored. It was a fabulous night and the 5,500 in attendance, although disappointed with the result went home having witnessed a very special night. The Irish side can still qualify from the this group and had bigger games on the horizon as they got ready to play Bohemians, a game that could see them crowned champions.
Although very disappointed with the Zenith result a huge crowd gathered in Oriel Park last Sunday night to see if Dundalk could get all the three points from the game that would see them crowned champions. The fans were in the ground a full hour before kick off and when referee Neil Doyle blew the whistle to start the match they all knew that three points would see them crowned champions. It was a very nervy and subdued start to the game by Dundalk and it took a bit of time for them to find their rhythm. The opening goal to calm all nerves came in the fifteenth minute when Andy Boyle rose to head home a Daryl Horgan corner, one nil and the show was underway. After the goal it was a very composed Dundalk performance and a second goal was on the cards until the thirtieth minute, when shock of shocks, Bohemians were awarded a penalty as Ronan Finn had been adjudged by referee Neil Doyle to have brought down Keith Buckley, a lot of people had their doubts as to whether or not it was a penalty but in my opinion the referee got it spot on and it was a brave call. When all the complaints calmed down, up stepped Mark Quigley to slot it home.
After the equaliser the game fell back into the pattern of Dundalk attacks and Bohemians defending, it was a joy to watch and in the sixty third minute Brian Gartland hammered home Dundalk,s second past keeper Supple. Cue the celebrations, although there were still twenty seven minutes left you just could not see anything other than a Dundalk win, the fat lady was leaving the dressing room and clearing her throat as they say. When referee Doyle blew the final whistle the celebrations exploded as Dundalk had won their third title in a row. It was a massive achievement to play so many games in such a short space of time and not to implode on the run in. With two games left now to complete their league season, manage Stephen Kenny has the luxury to rest players so his side can be ready for the big challenges ahead over the next couple of weeks in the Europa League and the FAI Cup Final. But for now let us congratulate Stephen Kenny and his side on a a magnificent achievement in winning the league for a third year in a row.