Dundalk fans will get another chance to rack up some air miles after their side booked a Europa League second qualifying round showdown with Croatian side Hajduk Split after finishing the job against Jeunesse Esch at Oriel Park on Thursday night.
Ever since Stephen Kenny took the reins at Oriel Park, his side have consistently rewritten club records. Two more were created on Thursday as the three goals, added to Richie Towell’s brace from the first leg in Luxembourg, helped Dundalk to their biggest aggregate win in European competition. This was also the first time in the club’s history that they have won both legs of a European tie.
The reward - if that is the correct term - for the Lilywhites is a joust with the crack Croatian outfit in the next stage. The sides have met before, in the 1977 European Cup Winners Cup when Dundalk saw a 1-0 lead from the first leg wiped out by a 4-0 defeat in the old Yugoslavia.
Despite having just returned to pre-season training, Hajduk will provide Dundalk with a much stiffer test than Jeunesse did over two legs.
Kenny’s side had simply too much in their locker for Jeunesse and the game was over as a contest at half-time thanks to first half efforts from Brian Gartland, Kurtis Byrne and John Mountney.
Progress is the name of the game in Europe but Kenny will know that his side will have to go through a couple of extra gears if they are to take Hajduk’s scalp.
Prior to the game, the Dundalk manager warned his players against complacency but that message failed to transmit to the crowd. There was plenty of colour and flags on show but the atmosphere was similar to that of a pre-season friendly with the ground eerily silent for much of the game.
Oriel Park has played host to some big European occasions in the past and when Hajduk come to town on July 17, the atmosphere of those famous nights from the 70s and 80s will have to be invoked if Dundalk are to take something to the Stadion Poljud for the second leg.
With the tie all but wrapped up after nine minutes, it was easy to understand the muted reaction on the terraces. Gartland made the breakthrough with his sixth goal of the season, rising to head a Ruaidhri Higgins free-kick past Marc Oberweis from 12-yards. Game, set with the match to follow.
Three goals behind on aggregate, the visitors needed an instant reprieve and they almost got it, less than 60 seconds later. Ken Corral forced his way into the Dundalk penalty area and rounded Peter Cherrie but Dane Massey intervened at just the right time, sliding in to prevent a certain goal and maybe a much more competitive game.
Dundalk looked far from their best but they still had enough quality to kill the game off before the break.
Kurtis Byrne, who went close with an audacious overhead kick earlier, made it 4-0 on aggregate when he bundled home from close range after David McMillan hooked a Higgins corner across the face of goal in the 36th minute.
This was Byrne’s first goal against continental opposition and that accolade also went to John Mountney who found himself in oceans of space to drill home from the right of the penalty area in first half stoppage time.
The half time interval saw Ipswich Town boss Mick McCarthy make his exit from the ground. The former Republic of Ireland boss was a notable spectator in the opening 45 minutes with reports from East Anglia suggesting that Lilywhites captain Andy Boyle and midfielder Towell were the focus of his attentions.
With nothing to lose, Jeunesse improved considerably after the break as the natives, with one eye undoubtedly on Sunday afternoon’s crucial domestic meeting with Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght, took their foot completely off the pedal.
That allowed the visitors to make a fist of it and Daniel Theis’ side impressed for spells in the second half. Half-time replacements Ricardo Delgado and Mirko Albanese made a positive contribution with Delgado setting up Jonathan Zydko for Jeunesse’s goal in the 55th minute, the French midfielder rolling the ball into Cherrie’s bottom corner.
The visitors almost made it 3-2 on the night when first, Bryan Melisse fired just wide, before Kim Kintzinger saw a deft header hit the crossbar.
Kenny used the opportunity to shuffle his pack with Marc Griffin and Simon Kelly given their first taste of European football. Griffin acted as provider for Richie Towell to flash a long range effort past Oberweis’ right hand post.
The Jeunesse captain then showed a safe pair of hands to gather a Higgins free-kick as the game petered out with Dundalk in the ascendancy.