Ciaran Callan at the Skonto Stadium, Latvia.
It was always going to take something special to separate these sides and in the end, Sean Hoare took the decisive penalty to send Dundalk through to the Second Round of the Champions League Qualifiers after yet another epic European night for Dundalk.
This game was more important in a lot of respects that just the win, Irish football took a bit of a beating last year with Dundalk and Cork it’s two poster boys of the league crashing out of Europe. That wasn’t supposed to happen so for Dundalk to progress and to banish the demons of Larnaca was on the front of everyone’s minds. Riga was solid, hard-working and caused Dundalk defensive problems in counter-attacks, but in reality, while Delbelko came close to testing Gary Rogers he didn’t have to pull off a save until it matters, the penalty shoots out.
As the scoreboard made it’s a way to 90 minutes Riga sensed tiredness in the middle of the park and tried to exploit it, a superb last-ditch tackle from Sean Hoare blocked out the threat, if he thought his job was done for the night he had better things to come. Patrick McEleney missing his left-wing partner in crime was in the mood, you can sense every time he has the ball he wanted ownership and took the game by the scruff of the neck, his two effort on goal tested the keeper, you would feel however his free-kick he could have done better.
In the end, there was no way to separate the sides and when Riga went down to ten men it looked as if penalties were on the cards. It was a case now of how was Dundalk going to fare from the spot-kick, in this reporters time watching Dundalk since he was fourteen years of age, that’s now twenty years of watching the club home and abroad, I can count on single digits how many times Dundalk have won a penalty shoot-out.
This one needed to count.
It looked as if it would go to sudden death and it did when Rogers pulled off a magnificent save, Georgie Kelly was up to become the hero, a brilliant save denied the young striker the glory and we would go again. Jamie McGrath slotted home with ease before Gary Rogers pulled off yet another save to deny Riga advantage and up stepped Sean Hoare.
The defender had a rough run of it the last time he played in the Skonto Stadium. He limped off with an injury so he was intent on making amends. In the end, he did so slotting the ball away and sending the away end into pure hysteria. This has the makings of something wonderful but makes no mistake about it, Dundalk has a long way to go if they reach the group stages of a European competition. If they are to do that they will need a massive slice of luck, let us hope not all of it was used last night.