After 16 games, Ireland’s footballing heroes Dundalk FC bowed out of the Europa League following a narrow 2-1 defeat against Israeli side Maccabi Tel-Aviv in the last round of games of this season’s Europa League.
Needing a win and hoping that Zenit St Petersburg could do them a favour and beat AZ Alkmaar, it proved to be too much for Steven Kenny’s men.
Goals from Tal Ben Chaim and Dor Micha left Dundalk’s dreams in tatters. Even the magical Daryl Horgan couldn’t rescue Dundalk this time.
This campaign has been the best ever for an Irish side in Europe.
Dundalk lost out to Legia Warsaw 3-1 on aggregate in the last round of the Champions League qualifiers after beating the likes of Bate Borisov and Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar along the way.
Having dropped into the second tier of European competition, Dundalk showed they were no pushovers did themselves and Ireland proud as they ground out results home and away against some of Europe’s big guns.
What made their European run even more remarkable is that in the space of 21 days towards the end of the domestic season, they played a total of 8 games including 2 in Europe, yet still managed to retain their League of Ireland crown by a massive 7 points over their nearest rivals Cork City. It was also their third league title in a row.
They also lost out narrowly to Cork City in the FAI Cup, going to extra time with the Leesiders before Ireland Under 21 national Seani Maguire settled things in the 120th minute for Cork.
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny has built a mentality within his Dundalk side that managers around the world would be envious of. The will of the Dundalk players to always try to get the ball back after nearly 9 months of football is a credit to him.
After losing their main star Richie Towell to English Championships side Brighton last season, I didn’t hold out much hope for Dundalk in either the league or Europe, but every week they proved not only me, but many other fans wrong.
Other players stepped up this season to show their real quality. Players like David McMillan, Daryl Horgan, Gary Rogers and Andy Boyle showed that Dundalk were not a one-trick pony.
The staff and players can now look forward to a well deserved rest before they start pre-season training again in January. Thanks to their heroics in Europe this season, Dundalk have put the League of Ireland on the footballing map.
Fans of other leagues are starting to sit up and take notice of Irish teams and hopefully this will lead to investment within the league from sources other than the national governing body.
This can only be good for the league. For those of us who are neutrals, Dundalk have provided us with some great moments this season. They have set a bench mark for not only themselves in Europe but other League of Ireland sides.
We’ll no longer be seen as pushovers in European club competition and it’s only a matter of time before one of our clubs qualify for the group stages of the Champions League.
The benchmark is set, now lets see who can raise it next year.