Dundalk broke so many boundaries last season for League of Ireland football.
They secured their third league title on the spin, despite losing their best player for the second consecutive season. They reached another FAI Cup final. And of course, they had the kind of European run that captured the imagination of the entire country.
Their incredible 3-0 against Champions League regulars BATE Borisov in Tallaght Stadium was the stuff of dreams, and it put them through to the playoff round of the competition. Ultimately, they went out after a hard fought tie with Legia Warsaw, but they had come closer than any other Irish team to making the group stages of the world's most prestigious club competition. It also guaranteed them the honour of a Europa League group spot.
This in itself was something only Shamrock Rovers managed before, back in 2011. The best Rovers managed that year was a 1-0 lead against Spurs at the Aviva Stadium. Dundalk gave a much better account of themselves. They picked up three points against Maccabi Tel Aviv in Tallaght, adding a draw with AZ Alkmaar to that, and for a while we dreamed about the knockout stages. r
Ciaran Callan is the Dundalk reporter for the official SSE Airtricity League website and former journalist with Dundalk FM. He reflected on being a part of the madness that was Dundalk's Europa run:
It was unprecedented, I never experienced such joy as I did last summer in particular when we went on the Champions League run. That sense of pride and joy could be seen all around the town and it was fantastic. Quite simply, it was magical.
Tonight, Dundalk begin their 2017 flirtation with the Champions League, by welcoming Norwegian champions Rosenborg to Oriel Park. 12 months on though, and things are a whole lot different for the club.
Domestically, the stats say that Dundalk have improved slightly in defence - but they've lost as many games this year as they did in the entirety of 2016. The Patrick McEleney Worldie Show has kept them ticking over going forward, but overall, it's an alarming drop from last year's standard. They sit 12 points behind Cork City in the League of Ireland table having played two games more, and were notably dismantled by Sean Maguire when Cork came to Oriel Park before the break.
During the winter, they lost three huge players. Firstly, Preston snapped up Andy Boyle & Daryl Horgan. Then, Ronan Finn returned to Shamrock Rovers.
While Callan admits the league is as good as gone, he insists the side must remain focused on domestic actions during the next few weeks:
A good European run, while consolidating their league position is paramount to a springboard to next season. The league title is out of our hands due to Corks brilliant and powerful performances. But there is still cup competitions to aim for and Dundalk's focus will always be just on the next game no matter who the opposition is.
This season was always going to be a rebuilding year following the loss of three key players plus squad members. However as stated before no one could predict the amazing run Cork City have had thus far. They are a credit to the club, John Caulfield and the city.
For now, though, the focus turns to tonight and another European night at Oriel Park. Not many would've predicted what would happen at this time last year. An underwhelming performance from Kenny's side left them at 1-1 against Icelandic side FH. A Dave McMillan brace in the away leg put them through, and set them off on an odyssey that will be remembered for years to come.
Oriel Park is sold out for tonight's game with Rosenborg, despite league crowds slowly dripping away. It's a big night for the club in both short term and long term. Callan can feel that:
I feel we have hit the right kind of form at present to mount a serious challenge in Europe. The goals are starting to come but the balance to the side and the style of play is starting to return. Dundalk have proved time and time again - they can mix it with Europe's elite. We now, in some respects, have European experience and pedigree.
It's time to show how much it's worth.