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McMillan hopes for even better days ahead after stint as Champions League's top marksman

Last year was special for the Dundalk striker, but at 28, he wants to believe that there’s still more to come.

ON A FRIDAY morning last August at the Arklow Bay Hotel, the Dundalk squad piled into a room to find out the details of the newest additions to their hectic travel schedule.

Just over 48 hours after their Champions League hopes had ended in Warsaw, and hours before a David McMillan goal earned them three Premier Division points away to Wexford Youths, Stephen Kenny’s players gathered around a TV screen to watch the draw for the group stages of the Europa League.

Igor Lewczuk with David McMillan Dundalk's David McMillan challenging for a header with Igor Lewczuk of Legia Warsaw. Source: FotoOlimpik/Lukasz Skwiot/INPHO

There were 48 teams in the hat, among them Manchester United, Ajax, Villarreal, Roma, Fiorentina, Schalke… and Dundalk. For the champions of Ireland, the draw wasn’t especially kind on first inspection. A couple of long trips to face difficult opposition, and no glamour ties that would justify the use of the Aviva Stadium as a home ground once more.

Zenit Saint Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar, Maccabi Tel Aviv. Initially there wasn’t much enthusiasm, particularly about the treks to Russia and Israel while simultaneously maintaining defences of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division and the FAI Cup. But much like Dundalk’s results over the course of a memorable European campaign, expectations were exceeded.

“We were only just back from Warsaw and Stephen wanted us to be fresh for the Wexford game, so we stayed overnight beforehand. We were all quite excited looking at the draw,” David McMillan recalls.

“When it was done we were thinking: Jesus, we’re going to some mad places — Saint Petersburg, Tel Aviv; long journeys. But if you ask any of the lads now they’ll tell you that Saint Petersburg especially was an amazing trip. It’s one of the nicest players they’ve ever visited.

“The players were strolling around the city in snow and temperatures below freezing, and it was just such a different atmosphere from what we were used to in the rest of Europe. Everyone was saying they’d love to go back, which was the exact opposite of what they were saying two months earlier when the draw was made.

“Travelling away to places like that and testing yourself against teams of that quality, we were fortunate enough to have had some great experiences throughout that journey, which we’re very grateful for. It was something very special to be a part of.”

David McMillan celebrates scoring a goal McMillan celebrates after scoring the only goal of the game against Wexford Youths back in August. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Dundalk’s run in Europe captured the imagination of the sporting public in Ireland and beyond. After eliminating Icelandic champions FH Hafnarfjörður from the Champions League’s qualifying rounds, a stunning 3-0 victory over BATE Borisov in Tallaght meant that the side from Belarus missed out on the group stages for just the second time in six seasons.

Legia Warsaw halted Dundalk’s Champions League progress, but a remarkable — and extremely lucrative — journey continued in the Europa League instead. They defied the sending-off of captain Stephen O’Donnell to earn a draw away to Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, before getting the better of Maccabi Tel Aviv a fortnight later.

The campaign ended in December with a 2-1 loss in the return game in Israel, as Dundalk brought the curtain down on a long but satisfying season. However, just five weeks later the players reconvened to begin preparations for the 2017 campaign, leaving little time to take stock and reflect on the significance of their achievements.

“In some regards, no, it hasn’t really sunk in,” McMillan says. “It was a fairly short break. I went for a two-week holiday when I got back from the game in Israel, then Christmas was quickly upon us. Brian Gartland got married and my brother got married as well, and it was only another week before we were back training again.

“It felt like a very short period before we were focusing on another season again. There hasn’t been a lot of time to think back on it. Maybe in a couple of years’ time we’ll be able to look back and appreciate what was achieved, but at the moment our aim is to try and do it again this year.”

What made Dundalk’s results in Europe even more impressive was the manner in which they were achieved. Instead of setting up defensively and hoping for the best, they trusted their ability to retain possession and implement the type of attacking, free-flowing football that has brought them three consecutive league titles.

David McMillan scores his teams first goal McMillan opens the scoring for Dundalk in the second leg against BATE Borisov. Source: Ciaran Culligan/INPHO

But the irony, according to McMillan, is that their most positive results came on the back of an inauspicious showing in the first leg of their tie against BATE Borisov. Seeking revenge against the team that had eliminated them 12 months earlier, they were fortunate to be facing just a one-goal deficit when they left Belarus last July.

“The way we played should certainly help us in Europe going forward,” explains McMillan, who’s now in his fourth season with Dundalk. “It’s strange because when we went away to play BATE last year it was probably our worst performance of any European game I’ve been involved in with the club. We lost 1-0 and there was almost a sigh of relief that we hadn’t lost by more.

“If someone had told me at that stage that we were going to go and beat them 3-0 the following week I probably would have laughed at them. But such was our level of performance in that second leg that we really went into the Legia game believing that we could win the tie.

“Obviously we didn’t in the end but in both of those games we were equal to them mostly. From there on in we were confident, no matter who we were playing, that the standard wasn’t going to get a whole lot better than that.”

McMillan’s personal contribution was particularly vital for Dundalk. Having scored all three of his side’s goals against FH Hafnarfjörður, he chipped in with a brace in the second leg against BATE Borisov and ended the night as the leading goalscorer in (the admittedly early stages of) the Champions League.

“I just came into a rich vein of form at the perfect time — I wish it was like that every week! — but to be up there with so many goals was unbelievable, especially because of what they helped to achieve. That was a bit special. It’s something that’ll certainly be a highlight when I look back on my career in years to come,” says the 28-year-old striker.

David McMillan David McMillan: "The way we played should certainly help us in Europe going forward." Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

As rewarding as 2016 was for McMillan, the accumulation of games appeared to take its toll. In the 39 days from their win over Maccabi Tel Aviv in late September to the FAI Cup final defeat to Cork City in early November, Dundalk played 13 games and wrapped up their third consecutive Premier Division title along the way.

While he didn’t require surgery, McMillan wasn’t able to play a full part in Dundalk’s 2017 pre-season preparations after picking up “a wear-and-tear injury” to the cartilage in his knee. The problem only required some rest and an injection to bring down the inflammation, but he was still forced to miss their recent wins against Limerick, Sligo Rovers and Shamrock Rovers, as well as the President’s Cup loss to Cork City.

McMillan finally returned last week and was introduced as a substitute in the games against Derry City and St Patrick’s Athletic. Having also lasted 90 minutes in a friendly, he’s keen to play a significant role when Dundalk go to Turner’s Cross on Saturday afternoon to resume their rivalry with the current table-toppers.

“A lot is made of it but as far as we’re concerned it’s just another game against another team. The Cork games have certainly been competitive. There’s a lot of respect between the two teams. We both recognise that we’ve each achieved a lot in the last few years. When you have two sides fighting for league titles and cups, there’ll always be a bit of an edge to it.”

After dominating domestically and experiencing unprecedented success for an Irish club in Europe, Dundalk’s appetite to achieve even more has been questioned by some. The departures of Daryl Horgan, Ronan Finn and Andy Boyle have raised further doubts over the Lilywhites’ aspirations to eclipse what they’ve achieved to date.

For McMillan, the hunger to succeed won’t be lacking. Without it, he wouldn’t be commuting to Dundalk from Dublin on top of his 20-hour-a-week commitment as an architect. Like many of his team-mates, the former UCD and Sligo Rovers striker is also spurred on by the memory of what it’s like to be a bystander while others challenge for silverware.

Steven Beattie and David McMillan Cork City's Steven Beattie tussles with McMillan during last November's FAI Cup final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

McMillan: “Winning titles is a great feeling and going back to being in a mid-table team or a team that’s fighting relegation is not what anyone wants. We want to make sure we’re challenging again and being in the Champions League is something that’s really important for us.

“Only winning the league gets you that opportunity. That’s something we spoke about last year. While we were enjoying the European games, in the back of our minds we knew that we wouldn’t get that opportunity again this July if we didn’t win the league. That helped to keep us focused and thankfully we did that. I’m sure the same conversations will happen this year.

“I think there’s six or seven new guys and I’m sure they’re hungrier than anyone to get their first or second league title, or whatever it may be. Our achievements so far will quickly be forgotten if we don’t continue to be successful.

“We’ve lost a number of very good players and we have a lot of new players in, but I actually feel we have an incredibly strong squad. It’s probably a bigger squad than we’ve had any other year and there’s a lot of talented players.

“I know that the squad is still hungry. Every year we’ve lost players and there have been questions about whether we can continue to be successful. But we’ve continued to do it. Now we want to keep going and try to achieve even more. That just helps to drive us on really. All we can do is try and prove people wrong.”

If they can manage it, there might be one or two more journeys to “mad places” to pencil into the calendar in the second half of 2017.

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