Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny has described the 3-0 win over Bate Borisov in Tallaght as "the stuff of dreams".
The League of Ireland champions produced a scintillating display to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg to book their place in tomorrow morning's Champions League play-off round draw, banking the club almost €7million in prize money and ensuring that the Louth club, at the very minimum, will play in the Europa League group stages.
And for Kenny, who took his first management job at the age of just 28 years of age with Longford Town back in 1998, the achievement fulfils a lifetime ambition.
“When you speak about trying to qualify for the group stages, and I said it a few years ago, people think it’s very far -fetched and that you’re overreaching but I always felt it was possible,” he says.
“Sometimes if a team gets well beaten in Europe, which can happen, people dismiss the idea out of hand and think that it’s unrealistic.
“But you have to think bigger than that and we were firmly focussed on this for the past couple of seasons and we were firmly driven to succeed.
“We’re a small club with 3,000 seats in a small stadium. In the third and fourth qualifying round of the Champions League there are clubs from major cities with massive infrastructures and 30-40,000 seater stadiums and massive fanbases.
“They are serious clubs and we are in that company now. We have emerged over the past couple of years from nothing and now we are in the group stages which is what myself and the players were dreaming about. Now it’s a reality and we have that opportunity.”
Reflecting on the tie, Kenny praised his players for having the belief to recover from the first leg defeat in Belarus where they were second best throughout the game.
“I was so disappointed with the first leg in Borisov because last year when we went there we were outstanding and we lost 2-1. But this year it was the first time we’ve been comprehensively outplayed.
“Bate looked exceptional in that game. They have nearly 600 European appearances between their team, nearly every player is an international and it’s well documented that they have been in the group stages for the past five years.
“On the other hand, we have no internationals, we have emerging players but they have no reputation on the European stage, only at home in the League of Ireland.
“It made me think, ‘have we regressed in a year and have Bate progressed again’, which I thought they had. But when I thought more about it there were mitigating circumstances, such as the travelling. That was a factor in our performance in Belarus.
“We think optimistically and the feeling after it was that no two games are the same. We believe in what we are doing and even though we were outplayed in Belarus it didn’t stop us from implementing a game plan for the second leg that would get us through.”
The game plan worked perfectly. David McMillan’s 44th minute header gave Dundalk belief going into the break before the striker grabbed his fifth Champions League goal of the season just shy of the hour mark.
Dundalk showed no signs of sitting back and when substitute Robbie Benson broke clear in the final minute to slide home the killer third goal, joy was unbridled on the pitch and on the terraces.
“I think optimistically all the time but I didn’t envisage us winning 3-0 in the manner that we did,” laughed Kenny.
“The players showed incredible courage and composure and put in a performance that will live long in the memory of all League of Ireland fans.”