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Dublin: 5°C Saturday 27 February 2021

'I have a few knives in my back that I want to take away' - Dundalk on cusp of shock Europa League qualification

Dundalk face KI of Faroe Islands in Dublin tonight, with the winner progressing to the group stages of the Europa League.

Filippo Giovagnoli with the Dundalk squad at the Aviva Stadium yesterday.
Filippo Giovagnoli with the Dundalk squad at the Aviva Stadium yesterday.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

2020′s LATEST OFFERING of the berserk and the unprecedented: if there’s a fairytale tonight, a League of Ireland club will be the ogre. 

The Europa League play-off between Dundalk and Klaksvíkar Ítróttarfelag (KI) of the Faroe Islands has been described as the biggest game in the history of Faroese football, as no team from the Faroe Islands has ever qualified for the group stages of the Europa League.

Dundalk are now all that stand in their way, in a one-legged tie to be settled on penalties if needed at an empty Aviva Stadium. Dundalk are favourites, but that they are here in the first place is another of the year’s peculiarities.

Consider where the soon-to-be deposed Irish champions were six weeks ago. Knocked out of the Champions League after a string of poor domestic results, defeats scored to murmurings of boardroom interference in team selection, Dundalk sacked Vinny Perth and his replacement gave the Irish media their own, ‘Arsene Who?‘ moment. 

Filippo Giovagnoli left his role as Director of Coaching at Metropolitan Oval Academy in New York to take the Dundalk job, in spite of having never coached an adult side before. He privately described the job as “a kamikaze mission” but, incredibly, he might just be about to stick the landing. 

Giovagnoli has presided over successive wins away to Inter Club of Andorra and perennial Moldovan champions Sheriff Tiraspol, and is now 90 minutes from emulating Michael O’Neill and Stephen Kenny as the only managers to lead a League of Ireland side to the group stage of the Europa League. 

Mocked and scoffed at before taking the job, a man who has spent the last six weeks of his life living in a Dundalk B&B may be about to have the last laugh. 

“Sure, it is” said Giovagnoli ahead of the game when asked if tonight offers him a chance to prove himself to the many sceptics and the disbelievers.

“I have a few knives in my back still, that I want to take away. It’s going to come some day. I will never have regrets. I work so hard, so focused on the tasks. It is what it is. This is soccer, this is life. You have to accept people, you have to accept they are sceptical about you.  They were right. I came here. Nobody knows me. I accept it.” 

Can he identify any of the fingerprints on those knives? 

“Of course I know, it’s part of my motivation every day. But I’m always kind and gentle with everyone…” 

Giovagnoli was, in fairness, eager to look beyond just himself and focus on the bigger picture for Dundalk and, indeed, the League of Ireland.

It would be an astonishing end to a wild year if Dundalk were to qualify. They would bag a minimum of €2.9 million in prize money – with more than €500,000 on offer for each win if they get there – all the while doing wonders for the League of Ireland’s coefficient rating across Europe. 

filippo-giovagnoli Giovagnoli in yesterday's press conference. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

They have been helped by a kind draw: no Irish side has ever had a less daunting path to riches. One-legged ties against the champions of Andorra, Moldova and the Faroe Islands  makes for a pretty forgiving draw, given the Andorran and Faroese leagues are among the three lowest-ranked in Europe and the Moldovan league is rated a single place ahead of the League of Ireland. 

For comparison, the Belarusian League was ranked fully 19 places ahead of the League of Ireland when Dundalk beat BATE Borisov in 2016, while five years earlier Shamrock Rovers beat a Partizan Belgrade from a league ranked six places higher. 

That’s not to disrespect Dundalk’s performances so far. Winning three-straight European games would be a major achievement, regardless of the opposition, and they played particularly well away to Sheriff, where they came from behind to win on penalties against a lavishly-funded side. Veterans of Stephen Kenny’s all-conquering side are clearly responding to Giovagnoli, with Pat Hoban, Michael Duffy, Brian Gartland, and Gary Rogers all returning to form. 

Chris Shields has been as important as ever, though will miss tonight’s game through suspension. Sean Gannon, meanwhile, is a doubt with the ankle injury he picked up against Sheriff. 

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Shields’ loss may not be as keenly felt as it may have, given KI will play direct, rather than try to find the space in front of the defence Shields is so good at closing off. They are likely to play long balls to their 6’4″ Danish striker Ole Erik Midtskogen, and won’t be shy about committing bodies forward from midfield in support of him. 

KI qualified for this game off the back of one of the maddest results European football has seen over the last decade: a 6-1 win at home to Dinamo Tblisi, a game in which they redefined efficiency by scoring six goals with 29% of the ball. 

Hailing from a town of just 5,000 people, KI have had their own fortune in getting here. The records show they beat Slovan Bratislava – Dundalk’s Europa League conquerors last year – 3-0 in the Champions League qualifiers, though it was a walkover as Slovan landed with Covid-19 cases among their squad. They were then knocked out into the Europa League with a 3-1 defeat to Young Boys of Berne, where they shocked Tblisi and earned a shot at Dundalk.

There is an acknowledgment on their end that, while Dundalk are favourites, they too could have had a much more difficult draw and it’s rare to see two of Europe’s relative minnows play off for a place in the group stage, although it’s facilitated by Uefa’s seeding favouring domestic champions.

Take a look at some of tonight’s other ties: one of Qarabag and Legia Warsaw won’t make the group stages, for example, and it’s the same for Rangers or Galatasaray; Rosenborg or PSV; and Basel or CSKA Sofia. 

dundalk-players-training The Dundalk squad train at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

And further to the sheer surreality of the tie, while the stakes are enormous – the glory and glamour of European football along with transformative amounts of cash – the stadium will be empty. 

It is, unsurprisingly, Giovagnoli’s biggest game as a coach, though not as a player. A defender in Italy’s third and fourth division back in the day, he toiled away in mundanity with an odd, fleeting encounter with glamour, such as the day he marked a young Gabriel Batistuta, or those spent playing with future World Cup winner Andrea Barzagli. 

“When you are a professional player you have a contract and if you [get relegated to] semi-professional you can lose you contract, right? There was a couple of big games that I played myself, just to save the contract and feed your family, so you really feel as a player the pressure. But this game as a coach is the big one.”

Pressure, as he said later, “is a privilege.” Granted, he can’t have imagined this kind of pressure even two months ago, but Giovagnoli isn’t applying too much perspective to his journey, be it kamikaze or not. 

“It’s unbelievable, but thank God I don’t think like that. My brain is built to think step-by-step. I would go crazy if I start to dream, I have to be focused on tasks.” 

That he has brought Dundalk so close to the Europa League has taught him a couple of things. “I learned that I can coach at this level. I was sure inside me but I learned that I can really do it. I learned that I am good in the press conference. To face you guys, with my second language, not my first language, is really a big task for me. It’s a bigger task for me, this, than training on the field and organising the game. I learned I can do this. Also, it’s becoming fun.” 

Dundalk are favourites and tantalisingly close to an extraordinary achievement, but in spite of their manager’s command of his second language, they won’t be underestimating their Faroese opponents tonight. 

Only once at the pre-game press conference did Giovagnoli confess to not understanding a word in English: complacency. 

And who can really afford to be complacent in a year like this?

ON TV: RTE Two and RTE Player; KO: 7.30pm

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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