As pub leagues go, we mustn’t be a bad one – we have a team in the Group Stages of the Europa League for the third time in a decade. We’re entitled to be drunk on this accumulated success as well as toasting our latest!
The ‘pub league’ references are of course a reference themselves to the now famous [or infamous] spat between former Dundalk manager Vinny Perth and former Waterford manager John Sheridan, where it was alleged by Perth that Sheridan had referred to our league in these derogatory terms. True or not, both men have now moved on – Sheridan to League One in England to try to keep Wigan Athletic afloat and Perth to await his next challenge after guiding Dundalk to the 2019 Premier Division title.
Dundalk have certainly moved on under new coach Filippo Giovagnoli. His arrival at Oriel Park was greeted with a degree of mockery and disrespect in the media, with the talk of summer camps and an unflattering photograph. However what we have seen since is a passionate coach who has delivered on his promise to target Europa League success.
Giovagnoli arrived in Louth following the club’s exiting of the 2020-21 Champions League at the hands of Slovenian side NK Celje under Perth. The club has since put together three wins on the spin under the Italian and will take part in Group B of the 2020-21 Europa League Group Stage, along with Molde [Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s previous side to Manchester United], Rapid Wien and, drumroll please, Arsenal.
The path to the Group Stages has been difficult enough. Having negotiated an away victory over Andorran side Inter Club d’Escaldes, another away match – this time against Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova – was installed as the next hurdle. Dundalk came through 4-3 on penalties to set up last week’s Group Stage play-off round match at the Aviva against KI [Klaksvikar Itrottarfelag] of the Faroe Islands, a side with 18 Faroese league titles to their name. Goals from Sean Murray, Daniel Cleary and Daniel Kelly secured the famous 3-1 win.
The financial rewards are massive. With 850k already in the bank before this week’s victory, a further 2.9m has been earned from reaching the Group Stage. The club will have six games, with a victory worth 570k and a draw 190k. Winning the group would bring another 1m, with 0.5m if you are runner-up. Dundalk have earned and deserve every cent that comes their way.
The Group Stages will be a huge challenge for Dundalk to get anything out of, but they earned a win and a draw from their six Group D games in 2016-17’s competition, when Stephen Kenny’s side were paired with Zenit Saint Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv. When Shamrock Rovers contested Group A under Michael O’Neill in 2011-12 they lost all six games and failed to progress but the other side that failed to progress from their group was, another drumroll please, Tottenham Hotspur [PAOK and Rubin Kazan qualified].
Some big names won’t be tasting Europa League success this year, having not made the Group Stage. These include Galatasaray, Sporting Lisbon, Maccabi Haifa, Wolfsburg, Basel, Legia Warsaw and Rosenborg. This puts Dundalk 2020-21’s achievement – and that of the 2011-12 Shamrock Rovers side and the 2016-17 Dundalk side – into perspective. Rovers of course, did us proud recently in putting up a decent fight against the mighty Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led AC Milan.
The Group B home games will most likely be played at the Aviva Stadium. The best-case scenario would seem to be a 30% full stadium, although if Dublin remains in level 3 restrictions home games will be behind closed doors. Empty seats or not, big crowds will be watching the broadcasts of these games on their televisions, computers and phones.
Back in his playing days Filippo Giovagnoli played in Italy’s third-tier Serie C for a side called Rondinella Firenze. Never heard of them? Well, you may have heard of Filippo’s partner in central defence in that side – Andre Barzagli, future Palermo, Wolfburg and Juventus star and a 2006 World Cup winner with Italy. I’m sure Andrea has messaged his congratulations to Filippo.
The previous two managers to get sides from our league to the Europa League Group Stage went on to become national team managers. To have achieved the same success so soon in his senior club management career is a massive feather in Giovagnoli’s cap. I’ll certainly be enjoying watching his side represent our league and our country in Europe.