SportSoccer

Champions League glory nets Irish champions €1.2m windfall

Stephen Kenny's glory night with Dundalk
Stephen Kenny's glory night with Dundalk

IN a town known locally for being the mythical Icelandic home of elves and dwarves, Dundalk performed like giants to take a massive step in the right direction.

Stephen Kenny’s side came to Hafnarfjordur with a mission to turn their European campaign into an adventure and they achieved it with inspired second-half spell which booked their place in the next round of the Champions League.

Dave McMillan’s brace brought his personal tally to nine goals in his last four starts and, in doing so, he guaranteed his employers a minimum of €1.2m in UEFA prize money.

The immediate prize for the League of Ireland champions is a rematch with BATE Borisov, the side that knocked them out at this hurdle last year, with the important caveat that losing would not mean the end.

Instead, they would be relocated into the final playoff round for the Europa League. This win opens doors, but Kenny will not wish to entertain that negative line of thinking ahead of the second showdown with the Belarusian top dogs.

The confidence generated from this successful trip will send them forward in good spirits for next week’s trip to Borisov and they had to withstand a late rally from FH that gave them early practice at surviving heavy pressure.

It was unnecessarily nervy but breaking new ground requires character and those qualities carried them across the line.

The away camp had stressed in the preliminaries that the concession of a goal would not represent the end of the world and that theory was tested inside 18 minutes.

They had already learned that FH were a much sharper side on their own patch with the direct approach from Oriel Park replaced by a more expansive possession-based approach.

And that was evident in their breakthrough, a setback for Dundalk given that they had just missed an opportunity at the other end when Paddy Barrett – in for the injured Brian Gartland – headed Patrick McEleney’s corner over the bar. FH had ex-Manchester United FA Youth Cup star Sam Hewson available again and his classy pedigree came to the fore for the opener.

He engineered a move from his berth on the left side and continued his run to collect a perfectly cushioned pass from Steven Lennon to take a touch and slot the ball past Gary Rogers.

Dundalk were in serious bother but, in a strange way, the goal allowed them to settle into the game and string passes together with FH losing some of their earlier adventure. Stephen O’Donnell was able to dictate the tempo with the FH version David Vidarsson knocked out of his stride.

They should have levelled proceedings by the interval as their pressure forced goalscoring opportunities. Two clearcut openings were squandered.

First, Daryl Horgan caused havoc with a trademark run down the left that exposed FH hesitancy. He could have dragged back to Ronan Finn but went for goal himself and Gunnar Nielsen was able to save at his near post.

As the interval approached, FH were caught out by Dundalk pressure in their half with Patrick McEleney darting away from the unconvincing Mali centre-half Kassim Doumbia.

Yet he was incapable of finding the space to shoot or the right pass from inside the box and he was eventually ushered to safety.

Dundalk went into the dressing room with reason to believe they could still turn the tie around.

And that bore out in a dramatic period after the restart that dramatically altered the flow of proceedings.

It started off with a miss, a penalty that was softly awarded for a penalty box tug on Barrett. Ronan Finn accepted the gift but his effort was saved by Nielsen.

Dundalk responded fantastically well. Kenny had already made a crucial switch to introduce Robbie Benson for the ineffective John Mountney.

He slotted in next to the excellent O’Donnell with McEleney pressed further forward.

In unfamiliar black and gold shirts, the Dundalk kept going and their efforts were rewarded when Horgan’s endeavours forced a tackle that broke to McMillan and his speculative attempt from distance bobbled past Nielsen who quickly erased the memory of his spot-kick heroics.

That changed the dynamic of the situation as a further away goal would leave FH in need of two.

And, just after the hour mark, the border side delivered. Dane Massey’s intelligent clip up the left released Horgan and he scampered away before laying it on a plate for McMillan who timed his run and finish to perfection.

It was in Dundalk’s hands and Finn fired over a shot that would have put FH out of sight.

But as the light faded slightly, Dundalk fell back and invited pressure.

They were given a scare when Hewson fluffed his lines from close range as FH emptied their bench in search of an extraordinary comeback and one of their new faces succeeded in setting up a grandstand finish.

Dundalk dozed as Kristjan Finnbogason raced unmarked into the area and drilled a right footer past Rogers.

Kenny sent in Chris Shields for McEleney and Ciaran Kilduff for McMillan and anxiously paced the sidelines as the clock ticked into the final 10 minutes.

FH forced back to back corners that gave the noisy travelling band of fans serious cause for perspiration. And late calls for a FH penalty were waved away with Shields called upon for a vital interception amid a maze of bodies.

But in a country that hardly knows darkness, Dundalk held on to shine a light towards a better place.

FH – Nielsen, Hendrickx, Olafsson, Doumbia, Bodvarsson; D Vidarsson; Hewson (Bjornsson 77), B Vidarsson (Finnbogason 66), Palsson (P Vidarsson 66), Valdimarsson; Lennon

Dundalk – Rogers, Gannon, Boyle, Barrett, Massey; O’Donnell; Mountney (Benson 45), McEleney (Shields 79), Finn, Horgan; McMillan (Kilduff 82)

Ref – P Valeri (Italy)