The Story Of Dundalk FC
Dundalk will play in the biggest game in their history tonight. A Champions League playoff against Poland’s champions, Legia Warsaw. Commentators are calling it a dream come true for The Lillywhites fans but it’s more than that. It’s a fairytale.
A League Of Ireland club getting to this stage is a fairytale in itself. But when you consider where Dundalk have come from, the ground they’ve had to cover to get here, it is even more astonishing.
Less than four years ago Dundalk were on the verge of extinction. Save Our Club was formed and they moved mountains to raise the cash required to keep them afloat. They held sponsored bag packing initiatives in local supermarkets to raise a few hundred euro here and there.
That’s how desperate the situation was. Every penny counted. To think they are on the verge of a Champions League place and already guaranteed millions is just another astounding element in the fairytale.
The Story Of Dundalk FC – The Fan’s Viewpoint
I grew up watching Dundalk and one of my earliest memories is a European Cup match against Ajax in 1987. The Irish international Frank Stapleton played for the Dutch side and my pre-teen brain couldn’t figure out why my Irish hero was trying to score against my local ones.
Frank was kind enough not to bother but his teammates were of a different mindset. Over the two legs Ajax put eight goals past Alan O Neill and that was that. But that is little more than was expected of a League Of Ireland side.
It didn’t really matter. Dundalk were happy just to be mixing it with the big boys. It was back in the day when league champions across Europe were given the respect they deserved and placed in an open draw with everyone else.
The Irish champions had as much chance of drawing Ajax, who got to the final that year and the year before, as anyone. In that 1980’s heyday they also drew Liverpool, Tottenham, Red Star Belgrade and Kispest Honved. Teams my uncles assured me were great sides even though I had never heard of them.
Not long before that they came within a whisker of knocking out Celtic. That game became folklore. The story passed down to me and future generations as the great achievement that almost was. But in folklore it will remain.
The Story Of Dundalk FC – The Odyssey
Because this story of Dundak FC begins long after Jim McLaughlin’s 1979 hero’s almost pulled off the unthinkable. For me it starts in 2002. That was a year after I moved to Glasgow. It was seven years after I watched them win their last major trophy, the league title, in front of less than fifteen hundred fans in Oriel Park.
In 2002 I was alone in a pub in Partick waiting for a fifteen minute highlights package on Sky Sports. Dundalk were in the FAI Cup final. Although the game was over I had avoided the score and I was desperate to get some form of thrill from the action.
I was the only one watching the game and I have no doubt some people threw questioning glances in my direction as I cheered Dundalk’s success. But the success was tainted by despair. That FAI Cup win came a week after the club were relegated to Ireland’s second tier.
The Story Of Dundalk FC – The Wilderness Years
Relegation for Dundalk was an ignominious defeat. It was as unthinkable then as playing in the Champions League is now. But not half as unthinkable as the journey that followed.
There was no quick fix. There was no bounce back. It was 2006 before Dundalk won a place in the Premier Division. The injustice that followed is burned in every Dundalk fan’s mind, forever.
That season the League Of Ireland devolved under the auspices of the FAI. The FAI, ever the peoples champion (I jest obviously), decided in their wisdom to award the place to Galway Utd who finished second in the promotion race.
There was no justification for the act whatever the FAI may contend. It was robbery. One famous fan took matters into his own hands. A trip to Merrion Square with a can of petrol meant he spent Christmas worrying about the legal consequences to his actions.
The story of Dundalk FC could have ended there. Crowds are recorded as being lower than five hundred in those dark days. It will be an eternal stain on the FAI that they almost killed off one of their biggest clubs with such disdainful action.
The Story Of Dundalk FC – The Journey Back
It would be 2009 before Dundalk made it back to the Premier Division. Seven long years in the wilderness for the league’s most successful provincial club. A couple of good seasons back in the top flight were a boon but the good times didn’t last.
In 2012 they only avoided relegation back to the First Division because Monaghan United withdrew from competition. That lifted Dundalk off the bottom and into the playoff place which they duly won. But there would be one more attempt to drag them back into the mire.
Their playoff opponents, Waterford Utd, alleged that they played an illegal player. An enquiry found in Dundalk’s favour fortunately as with the club already on the brink going back to the First Division would have meant extinction.
The Story Of Dundalk FC – The Turnaround
Bear in mind that is not even four years ago. Amazingly that was when it all turned. New owners entered the fray and they set their sights on a number one target. Stephen Kenny, chased from Scotland too early in my opinion, was about to bring the club to unfathomable heights.
But Scotland’s loss was Dundalk’s gain. After returning to Ireland he had taken a post with Shamrock Rovers but they too failed to see his potential. He agreed to take over the role as Dundalk’s manager and led them to second place in his first season.
No club has ever won the title after finishing near the bottom the previous year. It also meant a return to European football for Dundalk, something that seemed a million miles away just a year earlier.
And Kenny’s team delivered a lot of promise in Europe. They saw off opposition from Luxembourg before losing out to Hajduk Split, another famous old name. But they won 1-2 in Split and some people, although not many, sat up and took notice.
A league and league cup double followed and Dundalk were back in the big time. A full nineteen years after I watched them win the title there were more people inside the ground an hour before kick off than had watched the title winning game in 1995.
Dundalk’s first venture into Europe’s premier club competition followed and this time more than a handful of people took notice. Champions League regulars BATE Borisov ended their involvement but only by a single goal. This time people noted that Dundalk were more than a plucky side from Ireland’s top tier.
Trophy Laden Season
They ended the year with another double. The big one, the league and the FAI Cup. Fifteen thousand travelled from Dundalk to the Aviva stadium for that one. Fifteen thousand! From five hundred fans back in the dark days to fifteen thousand making a one hundred mile round trip to watch the side.
They won the league with plenty to spare and were drawing plaudits from all quarters. Are Dundalk the best team the League Of Ireland has ever seen? A question posed by many following their league triumph. A question well and truly answered.
Of course it meant another pop at the Champions League, not that anyone was actually thinking about it. Nobody that is except Stephen Kenny. He has consistently said that his aim and the aim of his players was to make the Champions League.
Naturally nobody took him seriously. They are now. BATE Borisov got mauled in the last round, revenge for the narrow defeat from the year before. Legia Warsaw stand in their way. In the way of more than history.
They stand in the way of the culmination of the fairytale. From the depths of despair to the heights of enigmatic achievement. And it’s a fairytale everyone should get behind because if Dundalk reach the Champions League it will bring hope to more than the League Of Ireland.
It will bring hope to every small nation from Scotland to Andorra. Hope of breaking up the UEFA cabal. The rich mans playground need not necessarily be a preserve of the rich. Like all true fairytales the poor hero may be about to ascend to the King’s castle and if Dundalk can do it anyone can.