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'The league is always our priority but Europe is the pinnacle of your career'

Dundalk defender Brian Gartland looks ahead to tomorrow night’s clash with AEK Larnaca.

AFTER FOLLOWING UP on their heroics of 2016 with an early exit last season, Brian Gartland is hoping that Dundalk can embark on another memorable European run as they prepare to host AEK Larnaca at Oriel Park.

Having reached the group stages of the Europa League two years ago, the Lilywhites suffered extra-time heartbreak last summer when they were eliminated from the first qualifying round of the Champions League by Norwegian champions Rosenborg.

Brian Gartland Dundalk's Brian Gartland at Oriel Park this afternoon. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Back in the Europa League this season, Stephen Kenny’s side accounted for Levadia Tallinn in the opening round with a 3-1 aggregate victory. That set up a clash with Cypriot Cup holders AEK Larnaca, the first leg of which takes place tomorrow evening [7.45pm].

“We tend not to look back here. We’re always looking forward,” said Gartland. “It was disappointing last year. We thought we should have done better. We know we should have done better. That shows our standards. We’re here to compete in this round and to get through. We’re not here to make up the numbers.”

Dundalk go into tomorrow night’s game as the current Premier Division leaders, having won their last 11 SSE Airtricity League games on the trot, which keeps them a point ahead of champions Cork City and with a game in hand.

Gartland will wear the captain’s armband for the visit of AEK Larnaca. After playing in the games against AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv two years ago when Dundalk became the first Irish club to earn points in the group stages, the 31-year-old central defender knows what’s required to achieve significant European results.

It was a remarkable run for the club, which paved the way for players like Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan to secure cross-channel transfers and international recognition.

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Stephen Kenny’s squad has undergone some changes in the meantime, but Gartland believes that presents an opportunity for the newer faces in the Dundalk set-up to get a flavour of what some of their team-mates experienced in 2016.

Ciaran Kilduff celebrates scoring the equaliser with Brian Gartland Gartland celebrates after Ciaran Kilduff's late equaliser away to AZ Alkmaar in September 2016. Source: Karel Delvoije/INPHO

“The league is always our priority but Europe is the pinnacle of your career, especially when you’re playing in Ireland,” he said. “The further you go, it’s the highest standard you get to play in during your career unless you go on to better things. If you’re going to go on to better things, you’ve got to prove it here as well, as the boys showed in 2016 before they moved away.

“What’s great about this team is that we have new players, young players, who are hungry for European success as well. It breeds hunger. If you think there’ll be any complacency or any talk that lads who were here before have done this and that, it’s bred into you and it just keeps that hunger alive in the squad.”

The winners of this tie will advance to the third qualifying round, where they’ll face the losers of the Champions League clash between Ajax and Strum Graz. Dundalk will travel to Cyprus for the second leg a week tomorrow.

Gartland said: “It’s obviously an honour for me to captain a side like this, especially in Europe, but there’s no added pressure. We have the same job to do as we do in every game. We’ll apply ourselves in the same way and approach it like we do with every other game.”

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Paul Dollery

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