A view of the beautiful city of Riga beneath daylight. (Pic: Niall Newberry)
Riga, a city that has in the past seen its fair share of drama. It only takes a short visit to the Museum of the Occupation, based in the central region, to gain an insight into Latvia’s troubled past, which saw them at different periods under the rule of both Nazi Germany and later the Soviet Union before finally restoring their full independence following the fall of the Iron Curtain back in 1991.
Drama of a different, more positive nature returned to the Latvian capital last Wednesday night in the form of a Champions League qualifier as Dundalk visited the 9,500 capacity Skonto Stadium to take on Riga FC. After a scoreless draw in the first leg at Oriel Park seven days prior, it was instead the Lilywhite Army that arrived in great numbers to the Baltic state, with an estimated 300 making the trip, many of whom did so in arduous circumstances via places like Frankfurt, Paris and London.
For myself personally, it was the latter and I eventually landed at Riga International Airport on Monday afternoon. Absolutely shattered to say the least, I’ve very little energy to do anything other than check into my hotel, which rather conveniently is located right next to the stadium. Most of the Dundalk support seemed to arrive on Tuesday and it wasn’t too long before there was a congregation of familiar faces at the Kiwi Bar, located in the Old Town (known locally as Vecriga) and open until 5am, not that I’d know anything about that! The atmosphere that night is truly something to behold, even the local bar staff are sporting Dundalk shirts – we’ve now officially found our base.
Club chairman Mike Treacy makes an appearance, as does CEO Mark Devlin and the sounds of Oriel continue long into the night and morning; there’s even a couple of not so complimentary mentions of Drogheda and Tallaght, but the less written about the exact content of those chants the better.
Before all that fun had started for me though, there were press duties to fulfil. The discussion among the travelling reporters was almost exclusively in relation to Michael Duffy, who had left the Dundalk party at Dublin Airport due to the imminent birth of his first child. Would he play, or wouldn’t he?
Vinny Perth, who personally greeted every single member of the media with a handshake, was confident that Duffy would be flown over either on Tuesday night or as late as Wednesday morning when speaking at the press conference, but, ultimately, it wasn’t to be and in what was a huge blow, Dundalk were now going to be without one of their star performers for this crucial European night.
Matchday is here and the nerves are really starting to kick in now. Kriss Upenieks, who is perhaps the most relaxed press officer I’ve ever met, lets us into the stadium nice and early where the, let’s just say unique, pre-match entertainment is already in full flow. The game begins and it’s almost a carbon copy of the first leg with Dundalk dominating possession and Riga looking very dangerous on the counter-attack. Chances are aplenty in the first half, but the second is more like a game of chess than a football match and the tie predictably goes into extra-time before a penalty shootout ensues.
Even after over 210 minutes of football, over the course of two weeks and seven penalties each, these sides still couldn’t be separated. The travelling crowd are doing everything they can to see their team through this. However, we’re located in the other stand among the partisan Riga support, who are jeering every Dundalk kick. This is rapidly turning into a surreal experience and I’m seriously struggling to contain myself.
We’re into sudden-death and Armands Petersons steps up for the hosts, but sees his spot-kick brilliantly saved by the heroic Gary Rogers. Dundalk, for the second time in this shootout, have the chance to win it and the colossal Seán Hoare takes that long walk before confidently sending The Lilywhites into the second qualifying round, to face Qarabag of Azerbaijan.
Rapturous scenes unfold over in the away end and to a lesser extent in the press area, with the unfortunate Ciarán Callan getting a kiss on the top of the head from yours truly, while the UEFA observer above was looking far from amused. The celebrations continue long into the night with several Dundalk fans even missing their flights, not that they care one jot. They know what they are.