Dundalk's Ciarán Kilduff celebrates scoring his side's goal against AZ Alkmaar. (Pic: Ciarán Culligan)
The date of September 15, 2016, will be forever ingrained in the memory of Stephen Kenny’s reign as Dundalk FC manager.
Alkmaar, away. Enough said.
Saturday is the second anniversary of Ciarán Kilduff’s equaliser at the AFAS Stadion as the Lilywhites denied AZ an opening round victory, but more importantly gave extension to a dream that we never wanted to end.
Trailing one to nil and down to 10 men, after Stephen O’Donnell had been ordered off, it looked bleak. Despite one of their greatest performances, the night looked set for a kiss of disappointment.
Then, Chris Shields went on a meander down the left flank, drawing the free-kick from which Daryl Horgan whipped in and Kilduff glanced to the net. Ecstasy on the field, off the field, in the press box, everywhere. Dundalk had broken a glass ceiling, of sorts. At the seventh attempt, an Irish side had picked up a Europa League group stage point.
“That was a major moment for us,” Kilduff said, while looking out at a sun-drenched Orlando afternoon.
“Then, two weeks later, I scored again against Maccabi Tel-Aviv and we could really begin dreaming about what we could do in the group, four points from (a possible) six.”
Taking a breath, he added: “It’s hard to believe that it was two years ago. It is the most cherished time of my career.
“That goal, for me, will live long in my memory and in my family’s memory because there was a lot around it, I’d a few injuries with my back and I missed the second leg of Legia Warsaw with a knee injury. So it was a bit of vindication.”
We speak as the rain lashes down in Dundalk. I refer this to Ciarán, who laughs and gives a more detailed description of his surroundings, “I don’t really want to annoy you by saying what I’m looking at, at the minute, but I’m looking at a pool and a few beach umbrellas.”
Again, enough said.
He had been texting Robbie Benson as recently as the day before, something about the places they’d been on that 2016 run. St. Petersburg, Israel, Warsaw, etc. Not your general bucket list destinations.
A highlight of the run was, of course, the Champions League play-off first-leg at the Aviva Stadium.
“We got to play in the Aviva against Legia. I gave 10 years to the League of Ireland, but I don’t think anything could rival that year for us collectively or me personally. We were in such unknown waters.”
Waters only those on the odyssey may only be able to truly appreciate.
“We’d an amazing couple of years and it’ll be very hard to surpass that European run. I won a double there in 2015 and then won the league and had a run in the Europa League. It was a really great time and probably the most important thing was the group of lads we had. It was a tight knit group and there were a lot of lads who I’ll speak to for life, and we had some nights that I’ll always remember.”
He took off last year, a move which seemed shotgun at the time but ultimately an opportunity that he couldn’t turn down. The club: Jacksonville Armada, the place: Florida. A no-brainer.
And things started well. He scored a few goals in the NASL and post-Christmas was named as the club’s captain, before a change in the league structures saw their grade renamed, among other significant alterations.
His most recent season is just over, a campaign which saw them reach their State final, losing to eventual national champions Miami. Kilduff was on the scoresheet in the decider, a match which was screened live on a few major TV stations.
This reporter remembers speaking to him after the AZ game. But in America his interviews were carried to millions. Changed times.
Signed on an 18-month deal, Kilduff’s future is somewhat in the balance. His contract expires at the end of the year and he’s due to come home soon, with no return flight booked. Decisions have to be made. His daughter is three and school is fast approaching, so settling somewhere “homely” is a must, he admits.
But both parties are hopeful of an agreement and the club has indicated that they’d like their skipper to stay.
“I’ve loved my time here and I’d love the opportunity to have another year or two, but at this moment in time I’ve nothing concrete.”
The Dundalk result is still high on his agenda every Friday evening and he watches as often as he can. St. Patrick’s Athletic visit Oriel Park in early October, a match he plans to take in when back in Ireland.
Things have changed drastically since he left. American owners, namely.
“It was kind of a funny one alright. I went one way and the Americans went the other,” he chuckled.
“But, in fairness, in America, they do things right and there are training facilities here that are better than stadiums at home, which is a shame because the level mightn’t be as high, but the facilities, they kind of make up for that.
“With the new American owners, I can see that it will be a wise move for Dundalk and if they pump the money in and invest in the right things it could be a very beneficial move for the club going forward.”
Last Friday, the Kilduff clan went to Disneyland. Another rollercoaster, two years on.