It was quite a night for Dundalk FC. The League of Ireland champions are now only one round away from reaching the Champions League group stages courtesy of a 3-0 second leg victory over Belorussian champions BATE Borisov. If they were to progress in the next round they would become the first ever team from the League of Ireland to reach the group stages of the competition.
Dundalk had progressed to the third round of Champions League qualifying courtesy of victory over Icelandic champions FH in the previous round. Their hopes of progressing further took a serious hit when they were drawn against BATE in the next round and things didn’t look any brighter after a 1-0 first-leg defeat in Belarus.
At this point, Dundalk had been completely written off, mainly due to the difference in stature of the two clubs. Despite their successes in the 1960s-1990s, the club has only won 2 league titles, 1 FAI Cup and 1 League of Ireland Cup in the twenty or so years since. While in the same period, BATE have won 12 Belarusian Premier League titles, including the last 10 in a row, 3 Belarusian Cups and 6 Belarusian Super Cups. As well as this, they are somewhat Champions League regulars, having competed in the group stages of the competition in five of the last six years, scoring victories over Roma, Lille, Athletic Bilbao and Bayern Munich in the process. Their greatest success in the competition came in the 2012/13 season when they managed to finish third in a group with Bayern Munich, Valencia and Lille to progress to the Europa League knockout stages.
Therefore, at the start of the night, a daunting task lay ahead of Dundalk. The task was made that bit harder by the fact they had to move the game to Tallaght Stadium in Dublin as their home, Oriel Park, has only 3,000 seats and UEFA specify that beyond the Second round of qualifying matches must be played in 4,500+ seater stadiums. The only positive for the club was that the change of venue allowed 5,000 fans of the club’s supporters to attend the match.
Dundalk were under large amounts of pressure for much of the game and had to ride their luck but they managed to take the lead right on the stroke of half-time when David McMillan converted Daryl Horgan’s cross. Dundalk then took the lead in the tie in the 60th minute when McMillan scored his second of the night. From then on Dundalk had a lot of defending to do but they managed to hold out before substitute Robbie Benson slotted it home to put the tie beyond any doubt and complete the most unlikely of triumphs.
Dundalk know they stand on the verge of history, Stephen Kenny will surely want his players to enjoy this moment but retain their focus ahead of the next round. The list of possible opponents include: Viktoria Plzen, Apoel Nicosia, Dinamo Zagreb, Ludogorets Razgrad, Olympiakos/Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Trencin/Legia Warsaw, Astra Giurgiu/FC Copenhagen or Partizan Tirana/Red Bull Salzburg and Celtic/FC Astana. No matter who they draw, Dundalk will most likely go into the game as underdogs but I’m sure they won’t mind that one bit as they battled so hard to upset the odds against BATE in this round and since 2016 appears to be the year of the underdog who knows what could happen.
Whatever transpires in the next round, Dundalk are safe in the knowledge that their exploits have earned them a place in the Europa League group stages at the very least, thus making them only the second Irish team to ever make the group stages of a European competition after Shamrock Rovers reached the same stage in 2011.