“Proud to be here, proud of the team, proud of the fans, proud of Dundalk FC. What an effort!”
When I published that Tweet just after 9pm on Thursday, it came at the end of one of the most unforgettable nights in the history of Dundalk Football Club.
Victory over Hajduk Split, in Croatia, will go down as the club’s most famous in European competition thus far and although the Lilywhites bowed out of the Europa League, it was a night, and trip, that will live long in the memory.
It started almost 40 hours earlier. There were a lot of bleary eyes on the bus that departed Oriel Park at 5.45am on Wednesday morning. The local based players sat at the back of the bus, like excited kids going on a school tour. The boss, Stephen Kenny, sat perched in his seat, just behind the driver at the front. Fans and officials, about 40 in total, scattered in between.
There was no hanging around at the airport. The full squad soon assembled at the departure gate. Some of them, Kurtis Byrne in particular, looked more than a little flustered by the small CityJet charter which would fly us to Croatia.
The departure time of 9am came and went. There was no explanation given but nobody seemed too concerned. As the clock ticked closer to ten o’clock, all became clear as Richie Towell emerged at the gate with his passport held aloft like a trophy. The star midfielder misplacing it - or in other words, forgetting it - as he left his house.
A three hour flight - brightened up by some of the more colourful characters onboard - took us over the UK, Germany, France and Austria before landing at Split airport. When the cabin doors opened, we were hit by the searing midday heat. A reminder of how difficult this task would be for the players.
Two buses were on hand, one to take the players to their remote hotel outside the city, the other to take the supporters to their more central base. The press? We made our own way to an apartment that was located across the road from Hajduk’s old stadium - the scene of Dundalk’s 4-0 European Cup Winners Cup defeat in 1977 - which is now home to the city’s rugby club.
If there is one thing that stands out about Split, it’s that the people there love their football. In Dundalk, we pride ourselves on being a football town but Split is on a different level.
Murals of Hajduk are emblazoned on walls throughout the city. A massive crest greeted us as we entered our apartment block while slogans and messages decorated the corridoors. Our driver, a member of Hajduk’s famous Torcida, the oldest supporters group in Europe, was the first of many to tell us of the hostile atmosphere Dundalk would have to contend with the following night.
The Dundalk squad trained at the Stadion Poljud on Wednesday evening. Less than 10 minutes from our apartment, we walked to the stadium, a massive slab of communist concrete with a maze of tiers that made finding the entrance more than a bit difficult.
As we made our way around the perimeter, LMFM called for a preview of the game. The heat, the atmosphere and the history books were all against Dundalk, I explained but “if there was any Dundalk side who could overturn the first leg defeat, it was this one.” That line was delivered more in hope than expectation of what was to come.
We eventually found our way into the stadium and were directed to the VIP seats: big comfy armchairs more suited to a cinema. The press box was further up and we sussed out the essentials: sockets, WIFI etc.
The Poljud is an impressive sight, even when it’s empty. A 35,000 seater bowl of intimidation. On two sides of the stadium there is a roof which kept the pitch shaded from the sunshine but baked in humidity. The surface wasn’t great, a concert at the venue two weeks earlier taking its toll. The Dundalk players went through their warm up, their spirits high.
Night time gave an opportunity to explore the magnificent city of Split, Croatia’s second biggest with a population of around 180,000. Hemmed in by the Adriatic sea, the city’s core area is the Diocletian Palace, an ancient Roman fort which houses most of the city’s bars and restaurants. It is accompanied by a beautiful seafront for good measure.
Dundalk fans made their presence felt in the meandering streets with terrace chants and ballads dedicated to the town getting plenty of airtime. Hajduk fans made themselves visible when they noticed the Dundalk shirts. Their message was pretty clear: the Lilywhites had no chance.
The sentiment was shared by most of the travelling support. The day of the game saw everyone gather in the lobby of the President Hotel. Hopes were expressed that Dundalk could get the first goal. If that happened, it was game on. The heat and humidity was the biggest concern and the consensus was that an early Hajduk goal would open the floodgates. Legia Warsaw’s 5-0 demolition of St Patrick’s Athletic’s the night before hardly inspired confidence.
A bus arrived to take the group to the Poljud. Escorted by the police we winded our way around the perimeter of the stadium, passing a circus located in one of the car parks beside the ground. Animals of all kinds were advertised on its posters but for Dundalk, the lion’s den was the Poljud.
The team-sheets brought more than a few raised eyebrows. Gabriel Sava and Donal McDermott were names we expected to see amongst the substitutes but closer analysis showed a team with pace and intent. Who were we to doubt Stephen Kenny?
As kick off inched closer, the Poljud started filling up. Eateries around the city had swelled with Hajduk fans during the day and they were starting to flood into the stands. The terrace behind the goal to our left was where the Torcida were based and it was a cauldron of noise, colour and song.
Dundalk FM rang for a quick check on the teams. Things were going well and I could hear John Murphy and Ger Cunningham’s dulcet tones perfectly. When the teams entered the pitch, the decibel levels in the stands were cranked up. We agreed to try and speak after the game.
Dundalk, wearing a mish mash of yellow and blue shirts with black shorts and socks, started well but the threat from Hajduk was evident and it was no surprise when Jean Evrad Kouassi, a pantomime villain in the first-leg at Oriel Park, put them ahead after Towell had gone close with an effort at the other end. Half-time approached with Dundalk regaining their composure and they went into the dressing room for a well earned drink.
With no action on the pitch, the Hajduk ultras took centre stage, singing and dancing their way through the 15 minute interval. It was an incredible sight and one that will live in the memory of every Dundalk fan in attendance.
Kenny introduced Patrick Hoban early in the second-half and the striker, who was frustrated more than any other Dundalk player in the first-leg, finally split the Hajduk back four when he pounced on a poor back pass to round the keeper and tap home.
Two minutes later Kurtis Byrne was introduced and when Chris Shields flung in one of the crosses of the season in the 74th minute, the Lilywhites no 11 stabbed home to put Dundalk in front. Game on in Croatia.
Twitter exploded into life as many Dundalk fans, watching on dodgy internet streams, dared to believe. Fourteen minutes to pull off arguably the biggest result by an Irish side in European football. One goal away from rewriting the history books.
Towell forced Dante Stipica into an injury time save but the final whistle blew and the Hajduk players, now derided by most of their own supporters, had managed to crawl their way over the line.
A famous quote by Mark Hughes, describing Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United sides of the past, came to mind: “They aren’t beaten, they just run out of time.” That cap fits this Dundalk team.
The reaction in the Poljud confirmed just how clued in the Hajduk fans are about football with almost 18,000 supporters giving Kenny and his troops a standing ovation as they made their way off the pitch. The players boarded the flight home devastated, summing up the winning mentality of the group.
The reaction on the journey to Dublin and from social media back home was one of pride and love. Conquerors in Croatia, heroes in Hajduk, superstars in Split, Stephen Kenny and this squad of players will always have a place in the hearts of the people of Dundalk.