Dundalk goalkeeping coach Steve Williams insists that the Lilywhites should hold no fears about meeting Hajduk Split in the second qualifying round of the Europa League.
Williams knows exactly what is needed to overcome the Croatians. The Welshman was part of Pat Fenlon’s Shelbourne side - which also included former Dundalk FAI Cup winning captain, David Crawley - that famously beat Hajduk 4-3 on aggregate during their memorable European run back in 2004.
The Champions League second qualifying round tie was a ding dong affair. Glen Fitzpatrick gave Shels an early lead in the first leg at the Stadion Poljud but Split took control of the tie by racing 3-1 ahead with just five minutes to go.
However, Alan Moore’s 89th minute strike ensured Shels took a crucial second away goal back to Tolka Park and Williams said the mood on the journey home was one of steely resolve to get the job done in Dublin.
“We got back on the plane with a lot of belief. We knew we had a real chance after getting the second away goal, it was vital. On the way off the pitch we had a row in the tunnel aswell so that only spurred us on to win the home tie.”
Fenlon’s tactics paid off handsomely in the return leg. After playing it tight for 75 minutes, Shels launched a late onslaught. A Dave Rogers effort, a “flukey volley”, according to Williams, and a 93rd minute strike from Alan Moore secured one of the biggest results by a League of Ireland team in European competition.
“Hajduk was one of the biggest tasks we ever had. Going into the tie, we didn’t have a prayer of going through. Hajduk were actually making plans with Deportivo La Coruna about the next round when the draw was made. All we wanted to do was go out and give a good performance,” said Williams.
Shels gave Deportivo a run for their money in the next round, drawing 0-0 in Dublin before losing 3-0 at the Riazor. It brought the curtain down on their Champions League dreams but that European run became the benchmark for Irish teams in Europe.
Derry City, under current Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny, followed that up in their UEFA Cup run of 2006, beating IFK Gothenburg and Gretna before succumbing to French giants Paris Saint Germain. However, in the proceeding eight years, there has been little progress of note.
Williams, though, believes this current Dundalk squad possess the tools to right those wrongs.
“This Dundalk side is probably ahead of that Shelbourne team when it comes to talent,” he remarked.
“We were as fit as the lads are here but at Shels we earned results through hard work. In terms of ability, Dundalk are technically far superior in all areas of the pitch which is not a bad thing to say!”
Dundalk host Hajduk in the first leg at Oriel Park on Thursday before making the trip to Croatia for the second leg seven days later.
Returning to the Stadion Poljud will bring back happy memories for Williams even though it was one of the toughest nights of his career.
“The biggest thing is not to concede at home and go to Croatia with something or the second leg because the away leg is going to be very hard. It was a tough, tough game out there, probably the hardest game I’ve ever played in Europe. The pitch out there was really massive and it was a real test.”
Dundalk will not only have to contend with a big pitch and searing heat. The reaction from the terraces is also something that the players will never have experienced in their careers.
“Crowds win games for you and the Hajduk supporters are unbelievable”, said Williams.
“When we went there in 2004 they were only expecting 10,000 because they didn’t really know too much about Shelbourne but just under 30,000 people turned up. It will be a completely different experience for the players.
“In Luxembourg the Dundalk fans were noisy but this will be a completely different level. It will be that loud that you won’t be able to talk to your players, you have to communicate in sign language. It’s a constant roar.
“The lads might have played big games in Ireland and games in Scotland but this will be something different. These are fanatical fans we are talking about,” he added.