Mention the name Dundalk to most football fans a year ago and very little would register it on their radar as a name within European football. A quick Google search evokes memories of a quintessential Irish town full of greenery, that has benefited greatly from the significant economic boom in that area of Ireland.
That injection of money into the area has turned the town of Dundalk from a Dublin-Belfast commuter zone into a hub in its own right, and there is no better example of this growth than in the local football side Dundalk FC.
Within the context of the Irish league, Dundalk were considered as something as a declining power in the early 2000s, with just a solo FAI Cup title between 1994 and 2014. Such a barren period had seen the side from County Louth drop behind the established sides in Dublin, as well as provincial teams such as Cork City and Sligo Rovers.
However, the 2012 season was to prove a turning point in the club’s recent history as the Lilywhites staved off top-flight relegation in spectacular fashion, beating Waterford United in the relegation-promotion play-off final.
Determined to never face such a do-or-die situation again, the club brought in a new manager in Stephen Kenny and enjoyed a dramatic change in fortunes the following season. Kenny was experienced in the Irish league, having enjoyed success with Shamrock Rovers, Derry City and Bohemians, and pushed the club into a second-place league finish and European qualification in 2013.
Kenny went one better in the following campaign, securing the Irish Premier League title for the Lillywhites, their first since 1995, as well as winning the Irish League Cup.
Dundalk took a further step towards becoming the most dominant force in the country last season by collecting their second successive league title and completing the double with victory in the FAI Cup.
In truth, Ireland has had dominant teams in recent years; Bohemians achieved the league and cup double twice since the turn of the century, as well as back-to-back league titles in the same period. Fellow Dublin sides St.Patrick’s Athletic and Shelbourne also achieved back-to-back titles in their own period of recent dominance, however there is a real sense that Dundalk’s achievements surpasses all of them.
Currently Kenny’s side are firmly in the lead at the top of the Irish Premier Division and set to face fierce rivals Cork City in the FAI Cup final next month. If the likeliest scenario is to happen and Dundalk secure another double, they would match the achievements of the Shamrock Rovers side of the early 1980s in winning an incredible back-to-back double and three consecutive League titles (although that Shamrock side won four in a row).
Perhaps a better illustration of their achievements is that should Dundalk win the league this season, they would become the first non-Dublin side to win three consecutive titles since the Waterford United team of the late 1960s.
• • • •
Read | Brian Kerr and the revolution of a problem child
• • • •
All the evidence points towards Dundalk ruling Ireland for the foreseeable future, and, despite a collective effort from the other league sides to halt their progress, Dundalk have time and time again shown that they have just that little extra bit that all champions need.
The other primary reason that Dundalk is creating history is through their performances in Europe, opening up the Irish league to a continental audience.
A lowly UEFA coefficient ranking means that all Irish teams are faced with a real battle to navigate the tricky road of qualification. Having already raised the bar within Ireland, Dundalk were only denied a place the Champions League group stages by defeat to Legia Warsaw this summer. A place in the Champions League group stages, in its modern format, would have been a first for any Irish team. However Kenny’s men have had to settle for a place in the Europa League group stages, the first Irish team to do so since Shamrock Rovers in 2011-12.
Dundalk have continued to break new ground for Irish clubs in Europe, drawing away at AZ Alkmaar and beating Maccabi Tel Aviv at home, the first Irish team to win a Europa League group game.
Much of Dundalk’s success has been credited to the role of Kenny and the committed home and neutral support they receive at Oriel Park and Tallaght Stadium. However, the most remarkable achievement from Dundalk has been their cultivation and retention of Irish talent.
Kenny’s method has been clear: locate talent within the Irish league and give it the platform to develop, and this has brought him huge success. Current Dundalk stars, including captain Steven O’Donnell, David McMillan, Daryl Horgan and Ciaran Kilduff, were all brought into the Lilywhites’ fold by Kenny, having enjoyed somewhat nomadic careers in Ireland. They have now found the platform to showcase themselves, with Horgan and European goal hero Kilduff the two clearest examples of this.
The challenge for Kenny now is to persuade these talents to remain in Ireland and assure them that their goals can be achieved, and that the bright lights of England are not always what they seem.
There are a number of success stories of former League of Ireland players in the English Premier League, with current Irish internationals Wes Hoolahan, Seamus Coleman and Stephen Ward testament to that.
However, the Irish league is littered with players that have not made the grade – or simply felt homesick – in England, a factor Kenny will be alerting his players to. Ex-Dundalk midfielder Richie Towell is perhaps the most recent example. Towell was a key man for Dundalk in both of their championship-winning seasons, however he opted for a move to Brighton last autumn. Injuries have disrupted Towell’s start to life in England and he has really struggled to make an impact, with just one Brighton start so far.
Given the fact that Dundalk have elevated themselves to new heights within the Irish game, and now look set to have some role within European competition, Kenny looks to have some hope of retaining players that could go on to represent Ireland, at least in the short term.
The journey of Dundalk has creaked the door open on Irish football, allowing a look into a hitherto unknown league, and as long as interest remains and revenue streams continue, the Lilywhites can go as far as they want.
By Feargal Brennan. Follow @FeargalBren