Dundalk bow out but Kenny’s players return from Croatia as heroes

Gavin McLaughlin at


Gavin McLaughlin at

Dundalk's David McMillan runs at Hajduk Split defender Zoran Nizic
When League of Ireland historian Karl Reilly took to Twitter on Wednesday afternoon, the enormity of Dundalk’s challenge in Croatia became even more daunting.

When League of Ireland historian Karl Reilly took to Twitter on Wednesday afternoon, the enormity of Dundalk’s challenge in Croatia became even more daunting.

It took just 134 characters to spell it out: “No LOI club has ever won the first leg away and gone out of Europe; no LOI side has lost the first leg at home and gone through either.”

It was the second part of the Tweet that was relevant to Dundalk. If the Lilywhites were to advance to the third qualifying round - and a nasty looking pairing with Shakhter Karagandy of Kazakhstan - they would quite simply have to do what no Irish team had done before.

In front of almost 18,000 fervent Croatians at the Stadion Poljud, they went mightily close to pulling it off.

If it had looked unlikely from the outset, then it appeared to be mission impossible after 25 minutes when Hajduk, leading two nil from the first leg, looked like they had killed Dundalk off when Jean Evrad Kouassi made it 1-0 on the night and 3-0 on aggregate.

Dundalk, however, rallied in the second-half and strikes from substitutes Patrick Hoban and Kurtis Byrne turned the game on its head to leave Stephen Kenny’s side one goal away from creating history.

The Lilywhites threw men forward in the latter stages with Richie Towell drawing a late save from Dante Stipica but a shell-shocked Split held on to book their spot in the next round and end Irish involvement in European competition for another season.

There were plenty of eyebrows raised when the Dundalk line-up was announced. Kenny made four changes to the side that was beaten in the first leg with Italian goalkeeper Gabriel Sava coming in to make just his third appearance for the club - his first in almost two months.

Donal McDermott was handed his full debut while Ruaidhri Higgins and David McMillan were also restored to the starting XI. Hoban, Byrne and Darren Meenan all dropped to the bench with Daryl Horgan left out of the squad with a tight hamstring.

Slack defending at key moments cost Dundalk in the first leg and they were guilty of switching off again here after just nine minutes.

A quick throw by Zoran Nizic sent Jean Evrard Kouassi haring in behind Dane Massey. White shirts flooded the penalty area but, thankfully for the visitors, his cutback fell behind the incoming Marko Bencun.

Kenny’s men responded well and they put together a couple of well worked phases of possession that slightly perturbed the magnificent home support.

It led to their best chance of the half after 24 minutes. John Mountney’s purposeful run into the Hajduk penalty area ended with the ball falling to Towell. The Lilywhites midfielder set himself up for a half volley but his effort lacked power and was gobbled up by Dante Stipica.

Fine margins often decide European games and so it proved here again. Seconds after Towell’s effort, Sava found himself picking the ball out of his net when Sandro Gotal’s magnificent back heel cut the Dundalk back four open and Kouassi, who set up Hajduk’s second goal at Oriel Park, got in behind to clinically finish past the Lilywhites goalkeeper.

With Dundalk on the ropes, Hajduk tried to land a knockout blow and Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur target Nikola Vlasic and Marko Bencun both fired attempts at Sava’s goal.

Kenny’s side restored calm and they were unlucky again just past the half hour mark. David McMillan whipped in a deep cross from the right to the inrushing Dane Massey but his effort was blocked by the impressive Nizic.

The Hajduk fans sang and danced their way through the half time interval, a truly unique sight for the visiting Dundalk fans, and the decibel levels were raised again when a beautiful bit of trickery by Kouassi left the hard working Chris Shields in a daze with a delightful turn early in the second-half.

The Ivorian winger was threatening again minutes later. Collecting a Nizic pass, he turned inside to let fly with an effort that just cleared Sava’s crossbar.

Kenny introduced Hoban in the 57th minute and the move paid off nine minutes later when he pounced on a poor back pass by left back Goran Jozinovic to round Stipica and roll the ball home.

If the visiting fans were given a glimmer of hope by that goal, they were believing in a fairytale ending when Dundalk forged ahead on the night after 74 minutes.

Chris Shields whipped in a sublime, world class ball and Byrne, introduced as a substitute for David McMillan just six minutes earlier, found himself at the top of a queue of yellow shirts to stab home.

The Poljud went from being a cauldron of noise to a bowl of anxiety as Dundalk pushed for a third goal that would take them through.

That opportunity looked like it had came their way in stoppage time when Towell worked his way into a scoring opportunity but the angle was difficult and Dante saved to ensure his team crawled over the line.