Nyon, a small, Swiss town, some 25 kilometers from the city of Geneva will be the focus for everybody connected with Dundalk FC on Monday (June 23) as the club gets ready to learn who they will play in the Europa League first qualifying round.
For players such as Richie Towell, Andy Boyle and Patrick Hoban, the first leg tie on July 3 will represent their first taste of European football. But, for Lilywhites manager Stephen Kenny, it will be his 23rd.
Dundalk are the sixth club that Kenny has taken into European competition. His first adventure came as the 28-year-old manager of Longford Town in the 2001-2002 UEFA Cup. It marked the start of a journey that has seen Kenny take four League of Ireland teams - and Scottish club Dunfermline - from obscure footballing outposts such as Belarus, Estonia and Lithuania to famous European venues such as the Parc Des Princes and the Olympic Stadium in Gothenburg.
In an extensive interview with The Dundalk Democrat ahead of Monday’s draw, Kenny discussed his experiences of managing in Europe and said he was delighted to have earned another crack at continental opposition.
“People should relish European nights. I’ve been at some magnificent grounds and played against some big clubs. Richie Towell, Patrick Hoban and Daryl Horgan have never played in Europe and they are desperate to do so. Those young lads can go on and have great careers and these games are important milestones. European games really capture the imagination.”
European football certainly caught the imagination of Longford Town supporters back in September 2001. Their clash with Bulgarian outfit, PFC Litex Lovech, marked the club’s first involvement in Europe and Kenny remembers how it pulled the community together.
“Longford Town was a great story,” he said. “Vinny Perth was part of my squad down there and will remember it well. Flancare Park went from being a pitch with no stand, it had railings around it with 60 people watching, to becoming a 6,000 seater all seater stadium built by the community.”
Litex won the tie 3-1 and although Kenny, his players and the club’s supporters encountered a few hairy moments en route to Bulgaria - most notably the cancellation of a chartered flight - the experience left a lasting impression on the young manager.
“Litex were a very good side. We were right in it up until the last few minutes of the away leg and they done us but it was a great experience and one that whetted the appetite.”
Kenny didn’t have long to wait for his next adventure in Europe. As manager of Bohemians, he took the League of Ireland champions into the Champions League qualifiers in 2003 where they were drawn against FC BATE from Belarus in a tricky first round tie.
Despite losing the first leg 1-0 away, The Gypsies overturned the deficit at Dalymount Park, winning 3-1 on aggregate.
“BATE were a small to medium sized club in Belarus back then,” recalled Kenny. “Two years later they qualified for the group stages of the Champions League and they were drawn with Real Madrid and Juventus. That guaranteed them €10 million and they’ve never looked back since.
“They got a favourable draw in the qualifiers and they had a bit of luck, I think it was a deflected goal that saw the qualify for the group stages, so we can take inspiration from some of the smaller clubs that have emerged over the years.”
Bohemians’ reward for overcoming BATE was another tough assignment, in the form of Norwegian kingpins Rosenborg. It proved to be a mountain too high for Bohs as they were beaten 1-0 in Phibsborough and 4-0 in Trondheim, going out on a 5-0 aggregate loss. It remains the only European tie where Kenny has tasted defeat in both legs.
“I remember playing Rosenborg in the first leg, I think it was the Wednesday, and on the Sunday we played Dundalk in an FAI Cup tie at Oriel Park. We won it but it was a bit of a scrap,” he said.
“As soon as we left Dundalk, we were heading to the airport for the flight to Rosenborg. You learn things every season and that’s a little lesson for me to take into account this year.”
A disappointing UEFA Cup exit at the hands of Estonian side FC Levadia Tallinn followed in 2004–05 but, with Shelbourne famously taking Deportivo La Coruna close in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, the signs were there that League of Ireland clubs had the potential to make real inroads in European competition.
Kenny’s Derry City side backed that assertion up two years later when the Candystripes reached the third qualifying round of the Europa League, beating Swedish side - and two time UEFA Cup winners - IFK Gothenburg and Scottish side Gretna before going out to French giants Paris St Germain.
Unsurprisingly, Kenny recalls that period with great affinity.
“Gothenburg had three players who were part of the Sweden team that drew with England in the World Cup in Japan earlier that summer. The first leg was in the Olympic Stadium where Pele lit up the World Cup final in 1958 so there was a fair bit of history there.
“We had a lot of youngsters - Ruaidhri Higgins included - in our midfield. Current Irish international David Forde was in goal and played very well and there were a lot of warhorses in our back four like Eddie McCallion, Peter Hutton and Seanie Hargin. They played in relegation play-offs but they were rejuvenated playing in Europe. We won 1-0 out there and did the same at the Brandywell to prove it wasn’t a fluke.”
Gretna were up next and Kenny’s side effectively sealed their progress with a 5-1 win at Motherwell’s Fir Park, a record away victory for a League of Ireland side in Europe.
“Gretna had got to the Scottish Cup final the year before and were really fancied to beat us over there,” stated Kenny.
“It was 1-1 at half-time but we scored four brilliant goals in the second-half. We rested a few people for the second leg and went through 7-3 on aggregate.”
By this stage, people were beginning to take notice of The Candystripes and that focus intensified when they were pulled out of the hat to face Paris Saint Germain in the third qualifying round; victory would ensure Derry City’s progress to the lucrative group stages of the competition.
“For me it was a double edged draw,” said Kenny. “I was thinking, ‘I want us to get into the group stages’ but at the same time I was thinking ‘what a draw!’.
“I went over to watch PSG against Marseille in a full house at the Parc Des Princes. Marseille had Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri in their team and it was a great game to watch.”
Kenny recalls how he was captured by the romanticism attached to the French club. However, over the years that diminished.
“There are eight clubs in London but there’s only one club in Paris. I remember thinking ‘what a club this is and could be’. Since the new Qatari owners have come in and spent millions they have become less of an allure for me. Unfortunately they have become a parody of every other club that is financed by billionaires.
His focus returned to the tie in 2006.
“PSG had Pauleta up front who was, at the time, the all time Portuguese top scorer. They were very strong but we drew 0-0 in the first-leg at The Brandywell. Killian Brennan hit the woodwork and Kevin McHugh had a penalty disallowed.”
A 0-0 draw on the Bogside meant that a score draw in Paris would be enough for Derry City to pull of the biggest result in their history. An early Pauleta goal, however, put paid to those hopes as the Parisiens went on to win 2-0.
“It was an old fashioned free-kick from Pauleta. They pulled it back and he hammered it home. They had real quality and it was probably a step too far but it was great for the city and the people of Derry.
“The Irish Embassy in Paris hosted the team and the fans, ITV and the BBC started taking an interest and people in Belfast were wondering what was going on in Derry. It was a great run.”
The European run was married with a successful campaign at home which saw the Candystripes complete a domestic cup double of League Cup and FAI Cup. Their hopes of winning the treble were dashed in heartbreaking style, though, as they lost out on the Eircom League title on the final day of the season, Shelbourne taking the crown on goal difference.
The reaction to Shels’ title win made Kenny reconsider his outlook on what he deemed to be a successful season.
“European results should be the pinnacle and people should be judged on that because that’s the only way the landscape can change in the League of Ireland,” he said.
“If Dundalk win six games in Europe this year it will still be the team who wins the league that will be deemed as being really successful. Is that right or wrong?
“In 2006, Derry City played six European games, won the FAI Cup and the League Cup and we lost the league on the final day through goal difference,” he continued.
“Shelbourne went out of all the domestic competitions early and weren’t in Europe. St Pat’s, who were champions last season, went out of Europe in the first round and went out of the domestic cups early on but both those clubs won the league in those respective years and people remember them as the best team because they were league champions.
“Is there a flaw in that process? And what exactly constitutes success?”, asked Kenny.
“I think that’s what underpins why Irish clubs haven’t progressed as well as they should have in Europe. European results should be the ultimate achievement. Unfortunately there seems to be a view that it would be better to be out of Europe because it interferes with the league programme.”
Kenny agreed that a more ‘calculating’ manager might sacrifice a run in Europe in order to preserve a title challenge at home. The 42-year-old, though, said it wasn’t in his nature and appealed to the FAI to help, rather than hinder, Irish clubs in Europe.
“The FAI should give clubs every chance and postpone games until later in the season. If we are away in Karagandy on Thursday week, and are expected to be in Tallaght on a Sunday afternoon for a game that might determine if you win the league, then where will your motivation be?
“The European coefficient should be the FAI’s priority but the rulebook dictates that clubs will always look after themselves. Ultimately, opposition managers see it as an advantage that they want to ram home.
“As a result, the big question for us this year is do we try and win everything? Do we try and pursue a European run? If we progress in Europe we will play Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday. For example, we have to go to play Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght on the Sunday after the second leg. If we keep progressing then we could invariably drop a lot of league points. That’s the reality.
“Is it a step by step process or should the club be thinking ‘we’ve worked so hard to get into Europe, let’s be the best we can be and let’s try and win the tie?’. I definitely fall into the category that we should be trying to progress. Maybe it’s a weakness and I should think more ruthlessly but we will endeavour to win our European games.”
Shamrock Rovers are the benchmark for Irish teams when it comes to progressing in European football. The Hoops made the group stages of the Europa League in 2011 and the Lilywhites manager certainly feels his Dundalk side have the ability and tactical nous to progress.
“We have to get through four qualifying rounds which is a big ask but at the same time you can’t rule anything out.
“We don’t have to change anything about the way we play. When you go up a level, the tempo goes up. The demands are quicker and it’s a bit more relentless. Some players adapt to it better than others.
“We aren’t like League of Ireland teams in the past,” he added. “We keep the ball like a European team. Irish teams used to line up as a traditional 4-4-2 and then they would have to change to 4-3-3 in Europe without any knowledge of playing that way. It’s different now. We play through the back and midfield and we will do what we have been doing every week. We won’t have to change our plan just for one or two games.”
European football caps an amazing turnaround for Dundalk FC. Two years ago the club was on its knees, close to death’s door. What has happened since is a fairytale story and Kenny said the people who kept the club alive should savour these European nights.
“It’s a big thing for the town of Dundalk to be in the draw. Two years ago the club had an option to go into administration. Had the club done so it would have been banned for Europe for at least three years and would have been relegated to the First Division.
“The club took the option not to go into administration and all of a sudden we are back in Europe. The finance generated from being in Europe this year has helped us and if you progress it can have strong benefits for the club but it’s not just about that, it’s about the glory.
“European nights are special occasions. I’d love everybody in Dundalk to experience big wins against European clubs because we have the players here to beat clubs in higher ranked countries.”