By Andrew Leahy
Dundalk FC have spring-boarded themselves this year to become the most successful Irish club in recent years, some may argue in history.
Stephen Kenny pushed his side not only to be a dominant force in domestic soccer, but also as a club who can hold their own in Europe.
The Lilywhites claimed their third straight SSE Airtricity Premier League this season, showing their dominance at home here in Ireland. They also have the Irish Daily Mail FAI Senior Cup final to look forward to in a repeat of last year’s fixture against Cork City this Sunday.
Their offensive and slick style of football has been developing over the past number of years and looks to be paying dividends as they have looked, at times, streets ahead of other national teams this season.
Of course, it was a long, extremely busy season for the club and the whole squad was needed, but a few individuals stood out from the crowd, particularly Ciaran Kilduff and Daryl Horgan, the latter of whom was included in Martin O’ Neill’s Ireland squad for the crunch World Cup Qualifier against Austria later this month.
But perhaps it has been Dundalk’s exploits in Europe that have been so eye-catching this season, venturing into territory that only a few Irish clubs have reached before. The Louth outfit became the first Irish team since Shelbourne in 2004 to reach a qualifier for the Champions League.
In losing this qualifier, they automatically went through to the group stages of the Europa League, and from then on they have done not only their club, but the entire country proud.
Their debut in the tournament was a tough away trip to AZ Alkmaar where a stellar performance led to a well-deserved point. Two weeks later, they claimed a historic win over Maccabi Tel Aviv in Tallaght stadium which sent shock waves through the Irish soccer community.
This win left Dundalk in second place in their group trailing only to quality European opposition in Zenit St. Petersburg who they faced on match-day three. A fearless display against the Russian outfit ended up in disappointment. The game had been billed as a David vs. Goliath scenario, but Dundalk hit the front through Robbie Benson just after half time. From that point on, the Russian giants turned on the style and scored two goals in the final twenty minutes to claim the three points.
Stephen Kenny’s charges are still well in contention of qualifying for the knockout stages of the tournament as they lie in second place in the table one point ahead of Maccabi. Dundalk’s exploits in Europe can’t be discussed without mentioning the financial implications it has for the club.
In reaching the Europa League group stages the Lilywhites received a cash injection of approximately €5.4 million. This sort of money has to be put into perspective, it is enormous in an Irish context. The Football Association of Ireland only pay out €110,000 in prize money to the winners of the Airtricity league, meaning that Dundalk have earned the equivalent in Europe this year, as they would if they won the domestic league every year until 2031. An amazing statistic.
What does this mean for other Irish clubs aspiring to hit the heights which Dundalk are? It makes it very difficult for other clubs to catch up in a short period of time. The FAI only offered a €5,000 grant to clubs in the Airtricity league back in August. Many clubs viewed this as terribly disappointing, seeing as the FAI surely have a far bigger budget than that, and judging by the fact that former Irish Soccer coach Giovanni Trappatoni was one of the highest earning football managers in the world. St. Patrick’s Athletic and Derry City turned down this grant in protest at the lack of funding which the league gets in general.
Dundalk’s prominence both domestically and in Europe will hopefully spark more interest in our national league than ever before and will lead to higher attendances and perhaps better funding in the future.