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Dundalk bid to light up domestic game with Champions League spot

By Daniel McDonnell

Published 17/08/2016

Euro stars: Former Portadown defender Brian Gartland (right) trains at the Aviva with Dundalk team-mate Chris Shields
Euro stars: Former Portadown defender Brian Gartland (right) trains at the Aviva with Dundalk team-mate Chris Shields

This is much more than a League of Ireland occasion.

Tonight's meeting of Dundalk and Legia Warsaw is a hugely significant Irish football event.

If it represents the first half of an 180-minute tie that ends with Stephen Kenny's charges entering the group stages of the Champions League, then it will rank up there with anything that an Irish sports team at any level has ever achieved.

Don't scoff at that notion.

In an era where the lines between the haves and have-nots in European football are clearly defined, and at a time where the domestic game has a lot of problems that it needs to address, the fact that a team assembled from scratch four years ago is knocking on the door of the biggest club competition in the world game is truly astonishing.

Think Iceland at the Euros without the detailed long-term plan that made that possible.

For an established operation like Legia Warsaw, the habitual champions of Poland, reaching the VIP area of the Champions League is the promised land. They haven't crossed that threshold in 21 years.

Words cannot do justice to what it would mean to the unlikely contenders representing a town in Ireland's smallest county.

With the hype comes a raised bar of expectation. Everything that happens over the next week has to be put into the context of where the border club have come from.

The Tallaght date with BATE Borisov in the previous round was a massive game, but they had to win it for that point to really hit home. This is slightly different. Over 26,000 fans have purchased tickets in advance because they realise it's a major deal, and the walk-up should guarantee a lively atmosphere in a venue renamed the Dublin Stadium by UEFA for the night.

League of Ireland operations are always selling, so it's a rare treat when the magnitude of the event draws curiosity from new markets.

Kenny emphasised that point yesterday by stressing that all four provinces are represented in his dressing-room. He wants the grassroots football people in their respective communities to take pride in this story too.

"The wealthy clubs trying to become wealthier," he said. "Smaller clubs can become marginalised. There's even been talk of excluding certain countries from the Champions League.

"As champions of Ireland you should have the opportunity to go in and compete with the champions of other countries," he said.

"You shouldn't just limit someone and say 'Well they'll never be any good because they can only get 1,500 or 2,000'. You have to have the capacity to grow.

"Champions League football could transform the landscape of football in Ireland.

"Obviously, there's a long way to go before we do that."

Belfast Telegraph

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