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Dublin: 8°C Sunday 25 October 2020

‘We were jealous watching Rovers against Zlatan and want our own big day out’

Dundalk’s win over Moldova’s Sheriff Tiraspol on Thursday has left them 90 minutes away from a place in the Europa League group stages and the €3m prize that goes with that. But Shane Keegan, a key member of their management team, says it is about the glory not just the money.

Dundalk's players celebrate last night's win.
Dundalk's players celebrate last night's win.
Image: Aleksandar Djorovic/INPHO

SHANE KEEGAN DIDN’T hit the hay until just after mid-day yesterday, the adrenaline rush from Thursday’s dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Sheriff keeping him awake through the night and well into Friday.

It’s just as well he didn’t need the sleep given how busy his morning turned out. There were attempts to get tomorrow’s game against Shamrock Rovers postponed, the purpose being to allow them prepare thoroughly for the most significant game any Irish club has been involved in since 2016.

If only life was that simple. As he waited on a call about that game, Keegan went rifling through his contacts book to speak to as many people as possible about next Thursday’s Europa League opponent, Klaksvik. Inbetween times, there were a couple of important familial duties to attend to, starting with the morning school run.  

By the time he caught his breath, it was coming up to lunch. Except for Keegan, lunchtime was the one window in the day when he reckoned he could catch up on a couple of hours sleep. Thursday had been the longest day.

  • Shane Keegan is host of The42′s coaching podcast How To Win At Dominoes. Become a member to listen to the archive of masterclass interviews with the likes of Padraig Harrington, Derek McGrath, Billy Walsh, Stuart Lancaster and many more.  

“Yet these are the days you yearn to be involved in,” the former Galway United and Wexford Youths manager said. “You can’t overlook the importance of league games because if you don’t take care of business at home, you don’t get into Europe. But Champions League and Europa League fixtures – there’s just a special buzz from them.

“This has been my first ever experience of that. And it’s been an eye-opener. Take Sheriff, our opponents last Thursday, the sums of money swirling around that club, you’d scarcely believe. I was speaking to their manager after the game and he was telling me they have got guys on €20,000-a-month.

“The club shops all across the world for signings. They’ve won the Moldovan league in 19 of the last 20 years; they’d a player last night – Veaceslav Posmac – who was man-marking Kylian Mbappe in an international last year; they’ve two lads – Cristiano, their Brazilian-born left back, and Castaneda,their No10, who are valued in the millions.

“This season they have played 10 league games, won all 10 and conceded just two goals. We played so well against them but as a consequence, that made them look like a bad team – when they are anything but. The Dundalk players deserve so much credit for that win because it really is one of the best victories by a League of Ireland side in European history.”

chris-shields-scores-the-winning-penalty The money shot: Shields' penalty earned Dundalk €300,000. Source: Aleksandar Djorovic/INPHO

That’s quite the statement when you consider what’s happened before – Dundalk beating BATE Borisov in 2016, Shamrock Rovers knocking out Partizan Belgrade in 2011, Shelbourne’s defeat of Hajduk Split in 2004.

There were plenty of other notable wins, too – Bohs, St Pat’s, Cork City, Derry making memories that will last a lifetime. But Dundalk are in the market for a miracle, too. For so much of this season, 2020 looked like being a write-off. Now, it has the potential to see them reach the group stages for a second time in five seasons.

“It kind of amuses me sometimes when people make a judgement call on a team based on the overall strength of the league they play in,” Keegan says. “The reality is that you get outliers – teams who are simply way better than their domestic rivals. Sheriff fit that bill. They’re a super side. For the lads to beat them, it really was a huge achievement.

“And I’m delighted for them because the players have taken a lot of criticism for the start they made to the season and when you look at it, this is a group who have won five League of Ireland titles (in six years), who made it to the group stages (of the Europa League) in 2016 and who have known little except praise. Now, they’ve had to get used to stick.

“So they knew the only way to salvage their season was by doing something in Europe. They’re happy with what they’ve done so far. But they want more.”

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Keegan sensed as much on Thursday night as their charter left Chisinau Airport. By then, the raucous laughter from the back of the bus as they journeyed along Moldova’s motorways had ended. It was as if the departure from Moldova was a symbolic moment, the trigger to signal a switch in their mood and focus. Sheriff were already part of history, Klaksvik the team stopping them from making more history. Never before has any Irish club reached the group stages of the Europa League on a second occasion. Dundalk want to tick that box.

“There was no doubt that the lads were jealous watching Rovers players marking Zlatan Ibrahimovic last week,” Keegan said. “You get huge kudos if you are able to do a job on a player of that stature and should we make it through Thursday, get to the group stages and get a big named opponent, then without sounding corny, those are the tell-the-grandchildren stories.

shane-keegan Keegan is part of Dundalk's management team. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“The players know they have a hell of a chance of doing something special next Thursday. Yeah, the prize money is massive, I wouldn’t overlook the importance of that. But for players, they really want to have some fantastic stories to tell about their career when they hit 70.

“We made an arse of it earlier on (in defence of their league). If we don’t get through, it is a long two months until the end of the season, whereas if we get past Klaksvik (their Faroese opponents) then we’ve a hell of a three months to look forward to.”

Keegan, a Spurs fan, can’t stop himself thinking about the possibility of a trip to White Hart Lane before the year is out and on this week’s trip to Moldova, the players down-time was evenly divided by players reading Champagne Football or watching the Amazon documentary about Tottenham, All or Nothing.

There will be different videos occupying Keegan’s mind in the next seven days. YScout and Instat are platforms most football fans will never have heard of but in the small world of elite coaching, they are necessary tools. Here, you get games from every league in the world uploaded and fully coded.

In simpler, non-techy language, that meant that by 11pm yesterday evening, Keegan was able to click on any Klaksvik player who played in their 6-1 win over Dynamo Tbilisi from the previous night and see every pass he made in that game. All it took was three clicks of his laptop. All last week it was a similar story, 30 hours of footage pored over so that he could deliver three separate half-hour presentations to the Dundalk players. Did it make a difference?

“Well, I certainly think so,” he said. “Like, Thursday night, as an example, we were able to see from our analysis that both their centre-halves were right-footed and not overly comfortable playing out from the back when pressed onto their left side. You relay that information to Pat (Hoban, Dundalk’s centre forward). Accordingly, he presses them into positions where they are least comfortable.

“You see their left back (Cristiano) and his desire to get forward and your reaction is in the team selection – where Ganno (Sean Gannon, a right back) is deployed at right midfield to counteract those strengths. So, if we hadn’t have seen any footage of Sheriff, we’d have selected a different X1.

“Plus, the second point that has to be made is that the players all want this information. Mentally they feel more prepared walking onto the field – and it puts them in a better place to do the business.”

Certainly the win was a profitable piece of business – worth €300,000 to the club and of course it gives them a shot at an even bigger prize. This one is worth €3 million – and also something much more valuable than that: a place in history.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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