Dundalk's European run in 2016 remains one of the greatest European journeys of any Irish club.
Vinnie Perth (Stephen Kenny's assistant manager), Ciaran Kilduff, and Dane Massey sat down for an exclusive interview with Balls.ie as part of our Champions League Memories series with LiveScore, to commemorate and remember Dundalk’s historic European run in 2016.
The campaign came to an end in the Europa League group stages, despite commendable performances and never losing a game by more than a goal.
It was their 3-0 third round Champions League qualifying win over BATE Borisov however, that would be the most memorable occasion during their run, at least from a players perspective.
“That was the biggest I’ve ever felt,” says Kilduff, who was Dundalk’s sub striker during their run.
“Not to be a superstar but we really went to a new level of like 'the whole country was buying into this.' And obviously we had qualified at this stage for at least the Europa League, and we were in the final round of the Champions League, but really things started snowballing for us then. Everyone was buying in, everyone wanted a piece. It was a media frenzy at times, it was a great time.”
The First Leg
Dundalk went into the game with a one goal deficit from the first leg in Belarus. Rarely is a loss a greater result than a win, but in this case it was, and having lost to BATE the previous year over two legs, they knew of the quality that they possessed.
Despite the occasion of the game in Tallaght, the result away from home was more important and a tougher ask after being comfortably outplayed for 90 minutes, in a game which Vinnie Perth says could easily have been a 4-0 loss.
Massey explains how at full-time, captain and current Dundalk manager Stephen O’Donnell laid bare the seriousness of the situation that Dundalk found themselves in.
“I’ll always remember Stephie O’Donnell in the changing room after that game. He gave his opinion to everyone. It was kind of a wake-up call. If we go home with the same mindset as we did last year, we’re finished, we’re done. That was definitely one of the key moments for me in that year.”
A Perfect Night
Onto Tallaght they went, with O’Donnell’s words ringing in their minds, giving them an added confidence.
While they were not able to play at their real home in Oriel Park, Massey and Kilduff are both mention that Tallaght felt like home on that sun-kissed evening, as hundreds of Dundalk fans lined the seats even during the warm-ups.
A crucial goal just before half-time lifted the Dundalk side, and Perth shares an amusing anecdote which summed up the change in mood and the inner-belief in the dressing room following that goal.
“I remember saying to our kitman Noel, who played such a huge part in everything. UEFA sent two boxes of footballs, and whoever won the tie kept the Champions League footballs in this beautiful presentation box.
“Noel had told me that BATE wanted to know where the balls were because they were taking them home with them. It wasn’t true but Noel wound me up about this. I remember saying to Noel at half-time, ‘them balls are staying here’. Because that inner-belief was that they were, and I think all the lads got one of those Champions League balls, and they still have it. But it was little things like that you just knew at half-time this is our moment.
“And it’s little things like that to the outside world you can’t explain. I remember saying and using some expletives, ‘they want these balls, we’re not giving them these balls.’ Little moments like that where I’m sure not everyone bought into it. And it was actually our kitman who wound me up about it, which was a totally untrue story, BATE never asked for them, which he later told me. It’s amazing how little things like that mean so much to a group of footballers.”
David McMillan got his second goal of the game in the 60th minute as belief began to grow that Dundalk were on cusp of something special. And the rain, as Kilduff notes, which began to pour down in the second half, only added to the occasion.
However, just one goal was needed for BATE to progress to the next round, but instead of holding onto their lead, Dundalk continued to press and look for the goal that would kill off the tie.
This attitude and attacking mindset, as Perth explains, was the DNA which defined that Stephen Kenny lead Dundalk side.
“But I think when Davy scored probably summed up Stephen’s coaching beliefs and the whole team’s beliefs. If you think about the logic of that, we were 2-1 up and one more goal would effectively put them through. But we actually didn’t do the typical thing of lets sit back here, lets make changes and we’ll put another centre-half in and we’d soak up a bit of pressure and hopefully hang on. And I think that whole group felt, and was obviously lead by the manager, but we felt lets get the winner. Lets actually make sure that this is done, and I think that second half showed what the DNA of Dundalk was about.”
You can watch the entire interview with the guys here: