The year 2016 has been a monumental year for Ireland and Irish everywhere. It was the centennial of the Easter Rebellion and the birth of the nation. This year also marked 100 years on from the Battle of the Somme, which ensured the division of Ulster and Ireland. It was the advance, however, of the Lilywhites of Dundalk FC to the UEFA Champions League Playoff Round that will forever be enshrined in Irish sporting lore.
Following on the spectacular run of the Irish national team in Euro 2016, Dundalk advanced to a point in Champions League football where no other Irish side had ever dared tread.
The Third Qualifying Round saw Dundalk upset BATE Borisov of Belarus 3-0 on the road. BATE has had a long record of European success. Previously, no Irish side had advanced past the Qualifying Rounds.
The Lilywhites drew the champions of Poland, Legia Warsaw, in the Playoff Round. Dundalk played host in the first leg of the tie at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Playing before a record attendance and the eyes of the nation on them, Dundalk played a possession oriented first half, staying level at the half. Two second half goals from the Polish side set up a rematch in Warsaw.
Playing before a less than enthused crowd at Polish Army Stadium today, Dundalk attacked early and often. A goal by full back Robbie Benson in the 19th minute put Dundalk in the lead. Dundalk needed one more goal to draw level on aggregate.
The second half saw Dundalk’s attack began to lag. A red card for Warsaw’s Adam Hlousek in the 67th minute rejuvenated Dundalk, and for a brief while the promised land stood before them. A late goal by Mikhail Kucharczyk ended those visions of progressing into the UEFA Champions League group stage.
While a berth in the Champion’s League Group Stage is over, the Lilywhites did earn a Europa League Group Stage berth. With the support of an entire nation behind them, Dundalk will embark on another road less travelled. And like the mighty Cúchulainn of yore, Dundalk will hopefully continue to defeat the giants of Europe.
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