Ken Early: Beaten Dundalk hold their own on sodden night at the Aviva
30,000 brave the elements as Lilywhites far from outclassed
Don’t be fooled by the TV pictures suggesting there were swathes of empty seats at the Aviva on Wednesday night. The middle tier was closed but the top and bottom tiers were packed; 30,000 people ignored a vile downpour and came to watch Dundalk. People often complain about the apparent reluctance of Irish fans to go and watch domestic football, but at least there’s no doubting their love of the Champions League.
It was clear from the red and white Polish flags dotted around the stadium that a lot of the 30,000 were mainly there to see Legia Warsaw, and most of the noise was coming from the couple of hundred Polish ultras behind Arkadiusz Malarz’s goal.
They greeted the pre-match ceremonies with a massive pyro display that will presumably cost Legia a few thousand euros, and for the ninety minutes that followed they kept up a relentless barrage of songs, a chorus that was no less impressive for the cheesy disco roots of most of the chants. The EU anthem is Ode to Joy by Beethoven, but from the shores of the Atlantic to the foothills of the Urals, most of the tunes that bind the European football culture together were written by Boney M and the Village People.
These ultras can seldom have performed for such an appreciative and respectful audience. Attracting a crowd that is ten times the size of the one that usually comes to see you is a sign that a football club is doing something right, but if there is a drawback, it is that most of the crowd doesn’t have any idea how to support the team.
The thousands of bandwagoners, aware that they were encroaching upon the turf of the Dundalk regulars and keen not to cause offence, were a meek presence in the stands, largely because they didn’t know what songs to sing. Even the densest among them could sense that The Fields of Athenry would be a serious faux pas.
Real Dundalk chants could be heard drifting up from the Dundalk hardcore massed behind Gary Rogers’ goal, and the bandwagoners strained to make them out, but the task was complicated by the incessant noise of the Polish fans at the other end. If Dundalk are going to have many more of these European nights they will perhaps need to devise some kind of educational programme so the new fans know how to get behind the team.
For most of the match, even after Legia took the lead thanks to Nikolic’s penalty, there really wasn’t much in it. The gap in quality was not so wide that you really would have noticed. It looked like a slightly slowed-down version of the recent Ireland v Poland internationals. If Legia could be in the Champions League, then why not Dundalk?
For a long time most of us have believed that the chronic underfunding of League of Ireland clubs makes it impossible for them to compete at this level. Plainly, the economics of the game dictate that the most talented players are not going to be found playing in Ireland, at least not for very long.
But in recent years, we’ve seen a levelling-up of the weaker sides in international football, as information about best practice in preparation and tactics has become easier to access. It’s easier to put a well-organised side on the field now than ever before, and in football organisation is always more than half the battle.
This optimistic reverie was shattered by Legia’s second killer goal - a through-ball poked through the defence to the substitute Prijovic, who beat Rogers with a dinked finish that reminded us that at this level, it helps to be the sort of club that can bring a quality striker off the bench. The Champions League is still a long way away for Dundalk. But maybe it’s getting closer.