Stephen Kenny talks Dundalk success and the view from the dugout

Not content with making it three league titles in a row, Dundalk embarked on a history-making European campaign, which resulted in Ireland call-ups for two of their players. Manager Stephen Kenny talks team tactics and coruscating indie rock anthems with Stuart Clark.

He didn’t get a single minute of game time, but let us not underestimate Alex Turner’s influence on Dundalk’s European footballing heroics this year.

“I always stick on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not before a game, and normally get to ‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’ before arriving at the ground,” Lilywhites manager Stephen Kenny laughs. “‘View From The Afternoon’ is a great one to get the blood pumping! I’ve tried converting the lads, but they’re into the dancier stuff. My introduction to music was early Stone Roses like ‘Fools Good’, and nowadays I discover a lot of artists through the Other Voices series. Conor J. O’Brien and Villagers are a bit of a favourite at the moment, and I try and get to gigs whenever I can in the Spirit Store. The Olympia’s another great place to see bands.”

It’s easy to forget amidst all the triumphs which followed, that Dundalk were nearly put to the Euro sword in July by tongue-twisting Icelandic champions Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarar.

“I stuck to FH,” the amiable 45-year-old laughs. “The Icelandic national side, for whom a couple of their lads had been capped, had just beaten England in France, so they were buzzing when they came to Oriel Park in the first leg of our Champions League Qualifier, and held us to a 1-1 draw, which with the away goal was a bit of a disaster. Over there they took the lead, and then saved a penalty so we were in trouble until David McMillan came to the rescue with two great second-half goals. You’d be giving the Manager of the Year Award to someone else if he hadn’t!” No, er, well, yes! Next up were Belarusian champions Borisov Automobile and Tractor Electronics, sensibly known as BATE for short.

“That was the standout tie for me,” he reflects. “They’re a club I’ve studied because, not disimular us, they get home gates of around 3,000 but have managed to get into the group stages of the Champions League five years in a row and play the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus who they drew with home and away. Even allowing for all the money that’s been pumped into the club, that’s a remarkable achievement, and one we’d dearly love to emulate. Going into the second-leg at Tallaght 1-0 down and beating them 3-0 on the night was probably the most euphoric moment I’ve had as a manager.”

While the group stage of the Europa League was virgin territory for him, Stephen’s no stranger to winning games on foreign fields.

“Maccabi away last week was, believe it or not, my fortieth European game,” Kenny resumes. “We had a great run at Derry when we beat IFK Göteborg home and away, stuck five past Gretna at theirs and then drew 0-0 at the Brandywell with PSG before losing to them 2-0 in Paris. There were also a couple of embarrassing defeats when I was at Dunfermline and Shamrock Rovers, so I’ve had good and bad European experiences!” Dundalk’s cheerleaders this season include Axel Witsel, who following Zenit St. Petersburg’s somewhat fortuitous 2-1 win in Dublin 24 said, “We know kick and rush, but they played good football and tried to win the game. Dundalk had lots of motivation and fighting spirit.”

Sentiments that were echoed by Zenit coach Mircea Lucescu after they narrowly beat Dundalk 2-1 again in Russia.

“To have someone like Mircea, who had great success at Shakhtar Donesk and managed the Romanian national side, say ‘You deserved to get something from the game’ and generally speak highly of us shows how far we’ve come as a club,” Stephen enthuses. “At no point in the Europa League did I feel we were out of our depth.”

No less impressed was Martin O’Neill who called two of Dundalk’s star men, Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan, up for Ireland’s game last month against Austria.

“I thought their performance against BATE Borisov was really immense, but this, if anything, surpassed it,” O’Neill said after Stephen Kenny’s men made history by drawing with AZ Alkmaar in their Europa League opener. “Really great effort, deserved to win the game. They’ve been carrying the flag for some considerable time. It gives the whole league a boost.” Which is a lot better than Giovanni Trapattoni who didn’t even think we had a league!

“Andy - who’s bizarrely never won a Player of the Month award - was one of my first signings four years ago when I took the job, and Daryl’s been lighting the place up since 2014. It’s been great to see them develop and get better every season. The clincher, in terms of them being called up, was us beating Maccabi here 1-0. The players really showed their technical abilities that night.

“Andy and Daryl are 25 and 24 respectively, which was previously considered too old to be heading over to England, but now that they have to compensate the schoolboy clubs they take them from, you don’t have big clubs signing 15 and 16-year-olds en masse hoping that one out of twenty might make it. The fact that they’re recruiting from literally all over the world has further reduced the opportunities for young Irish lads across the water. The upside being that we’re able to bring in really talented players like and Andy and Daryl (both of whom departed for Preston the day after we spoke, SC) and have them stay long enough to build a team around. If you look at the current national squad, half of them have played League of Ireland previously. That gives all of our lads something to aspire to.”

Despite making a whopping €6 million-plus from their Euro adventures, Stephen doesn’t expect Dundalk’s player recruitment policy to change next season.

“If you dramatically increase the wage bill with Europe in mind and get knocked out in the first qualifying round, like we nearly were this year, you can get yourself into a right old financial mess. If there’s a legacy, it’ll be the improvement of our facilities, which are pretty basic at the moment. The atmosphere at Tallaght was amazing, but we’d much rather be playing all our home games at Oriel Park. Now that we’ve financial stability we can hopefully kick on and take things to the next level.”

 

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