If somebody had said to me at the start of this seasons Airtricity League that Dundalk would still be competing in Europe at Christmas time I would have thought they were the biggest comedian since Bernard Manning. Airtricity League teams very rarely, if ever, have any sort of run in Europe unless they are doing pre season training on the beach somewhere in a warmer climate. This season saw the opposite and a little bit of history was made by Stephen Kenny and his squad. They put up a serious challenge to get out of a Europa League group containing Zenith Saint Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar, Macabbi Tel Aviv and themselves. The road has been long and contained twelve games on the biggest stage of all, European Football. How they have gone about their business on and off the field has been incredible and going into their last qualifying game away in Tel Aviv, they knew that if the results on the night went in their favour, they would still be playing in Europe after Christmas, something that would have been unbelievable for a club that was down on its knees a few seasons back. So how did it develop on the night that could see dreams realised or hearts broken.
Unfortunately for Dundalk, after the home defeat in their last game against Alkmaar they knew their faith was out of their own hands. The permutations going into game against Macabbi were many, but a Dundalk win and Zenith win or draw in the Netherlands against Alkmaar would put them through. Stephen Kenny knew they had to keep it tight in Tel Aviv and for the first twenty minutes it was going so well. Disaster struck in the twenty first minute when defender Brian Gartland tried to play out from the back and got caught in possession on the edge of his own box by Chaim, who played in Medunjanin who in turn was taken down by goalkeeper Rogers to give the home side a penalty. Roger,s was very lucky to receive only a yellow card as some referees might have produced red.
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Chaim converted the penalty and it was an uphill battle for Dundalk from then on. The Lillywhites did manage to score an equaliser in the twenty seventh minute when Eli Dasa put into his own goal. In fairness to Dundalk it was a brilliant move and the defender was unlucky to see the ball hit off him and go into the net. Another pice of sloppy play gave Maccabi their second goal when Chris Shields gave away a ball needlessly in the centre of the park. The ball eventually found Miha who,s shot went through Gartland,s legs and past Rogers, the goalkeeper in my opinion should have done a lot better in trying to save the shot. For the rest of the game both sides gave their all but alas it was to be for Dundalk. It was a kind of strange atmosphere in the ground as the scores were coming through from Alkmaar, they were winning their match three two. On the night Dundalk could not do it and it was a big disappointment, but they leave the big European stage with their heads held high.
Although disappointed with going out of Europe, the players and management should be so proud at they have achieved. When the dust all settles on this story we will look back at where the qualifying wheels came off the track. In my opinion it was the domestic league ending that did for Dundalk in the end. They started off great in Europe this season and unfortunately due to the fact that the Airtricity League had a finishing date which could not be moved, meant games piled up on the Lillywhites and tiredness became a big factor. Although they had a break after the Cup Final, this itself led to problems, as not having competitive games can lead to players losing match sharpness in their legs and minds. What Dundalk have done has been incredible for themselves and the League and it has set down a marker for going forward. The other clubs in the league now need to step up to the plate and make big strides to close the gap between themselves and the Champions. The FAI need to learn from this Dundalk journey as well. It might be a good idea to extend the Airtricity League finishing date until qualification has finished in the group stage for the Champions League and Europa League. It will mean that the competitive edge will still be with the teams if they are lucky enough to be in the same position as Dundalk found themselves in this season. Let us all hope the powers to be have a good look at this when they compile a review of the season. After all, we only want to take this to the next level and give our Airtricity League teams a better chance on the European stage.
By David Meier