Dundalk reach level to ‘go and compete’ in Europa adventure
Confident Kenny sets the bar higher as Dundalk prepare for AZ on Dutch home ground
Stephen Kenny: the Dundalk manager has done well, given the team’s fixtures pile-up. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
The fate that befell Celtic in Barcelona might just have prompted a slightly different take in the Dundalk camp on what might have been – had they beaten Legia Warsaw a couple of weeks ago and qualified for the Champions League.
Quite how much they can aspire to may be a good deal clearer after this evening’s opening game in Alkmaar.
“We all watch Champions League football on a Tuesday and a Wednesday and to be there would just be surreal,” says Finn, who was, with Stephen O’Donnell and Ciaran Kilduff, part of the Shamrock Rovers squad that reached the same stage in 2011.
“We would have been playing against world-class opposition, full internationals, World Cup winners,” he says. “I think now we are at a level where we can go and compete. We have already played Bate and Legia, and we have shown that we can compete at that level.
“The teams in our group are all respected, they are good sides, but they’d be on a par to what we’ve played already, and we have made a good account of ourselves. So from that point of view, we will be going to get results.”
Rovers led Tottenham for 10 minutes in their opening game, then conceded three in six and went on to lose all of their group games. Still, Finn is adamant that expectations are higher this time around.
“We probably weren’t as well equipped then as we are here to go and get points,” he says. “We [Rovers] finished with zero points, but the objective this time is to get points. We’d be devastated” if they didn’t.
“You work hard to put yourself in a position,” Finn says, “and it’s brilliant because the media, everybody, the country suddenly takes notice. Everybody will tune in; people who don’t really watch League of Ireland but who watch European football.
“You are representing Ireland and they will take notice, so you want to put on a good display, you want to be challenging and you want to be going over there looking to get a result.”
Desire only counts for so much when it comes to delivering. AZ almost won this competition in its previous incarnation as the Uefa Cup, some 35 years ago, losing 5-4 on aggregate to Bobby Robson's Ipswich Town.
They have been recent regulars, making the quarter-finals three times in the past decade, during which time they have also played once in the Champions League group stages.
In the Netherlands AZ have effectively established themselves as the fourth club, behind Feyenoord, PSV and Ajax, a status rather neatly reflected by the Eredivisie table after five games in the new season.
This is a club that sells on their best players: Vincent Janssen, Steven Berghuis and Jozy Altidore all having gone to the Premier League. But AZ also have a record of recruiting replacements well and boast a strong current squad, which includes a handful of senior internationals, most obviously Ron Vlaar, and a great many, mainly Dutch, underage ones.
Janssen’s departure to Tottenham, for about €20 million, takes a lot of goals out of the team. Iran’s Alireza Jahanbaksh, a versatile 23-year-old forward, has done his best to fill the void early on, with three in those five league games.
They will, in truth, fancy themselves to trouble Stephen Kenny’s group stage debutantes in quite a few departments this evening.
Kenny has done well, given the fixture pile-up his side has had to cope with. Key players (Finn, Stephen O’Donnell) are fairly are well rested, and Brian Gartland will likely return to the starting line-up for a game that will go some way to setting the tone of Dundalk’s wider group stage campaign.
Darren Meenan (groin) is the only doubt for the visitors, although Ciaran O’Connor has been left at home to recover from a rib injury.
Rovers conceded 19 times in those six games five years ago. A dramatic improvement on that will be Dundalk’s first target. Taking at least a couple of points does look possible, given the way they have performed in some of their qualifying games in the past year or two
Still, Kenny himself is likely to be setting the bar that bit higher. “We’re looking forward to it,” he says, as the team shape up to their sternest test yet.