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Dublin: 17°C Sunday 13 June 2021

Baku Beckons: Dundalk confident of springing another famous European upset in Azerbaijan

Johnny Ward brings us the latest as the Lilywhites prepare for one of the biggest nights in the club’s history.

Vinny Perth and Gary Rogers ahead of tomorrow night's game against Baku.
Vinny Perth and Gary Rogers ahead of tomorrow night's game against Baku.

EARLIER THIS AFTERNOON, Dave Kelly of RTE had taken advantage of the aesthetic prowess of the Caspian Sea to interview Sean Gannon and Jamie McGrath when he was approached by what might have been a park ranger.

In terms not uncertain, the likable reporter was informed: you cannot film here.

McGrath and Gannon, bemused by it all, reflected on the places like these that they would never venture to were it not for football.

Then it got more serious.

Within minutes Azeri police surrounded the Irishmen, one of the cops making a call to an apparent superior that Kelly soon realised was getting him nowhere.

You can see it now – ‘Banged Up In Baku’,” Kelly jokes.

Gannon, arguably one of the best right-backs to ever play in Ireland and who has been outstanding again this season, briefly wondered would tomorrow’s Champions League second-round second-leg qualifier pass him by because he’d spend it in an Azerbaijani jail.

In the context of Muslim countries, Azerbaijan is free and stable – but here was a reminder that this was no ordinary European experience for Dundalk FC, even if trips to Iceland, Warsaw and a city once named after Lenin have opened their eyes. They will hope for no ordinary result too.

The access the half-dozen or so Irish journalists have to Dundalk, Irish champions, would make a Gaelic games reporter squirm. Vinny Perth also extended the invitation to join his management team over lunch, while the atmosphere among the squad is one of confidence – despite the task ahead.

Perth remember times when Irish teams playing in Europe amounted to glorified stag parties. Things have changed and there is not even talk of pints among the Dundalk players here: they have a job to do.

He has admitted that he felt immense pressure during the penalty shootout against Riga in round one.

Dundalk qualified, are soon likely to be ten points clear of the excellent Shamrock Rovers in the table and, as far as his assistant Ruaidhri Higgins believes, his boss deserves more credit.

“Vinny is obviously leading this management team and he is doing a marvellous job,” Higgins said.

Personally I do not think he is given enough credit. He is not getting enough credit, I have to go on record and say that.

“The turnaround and what we have had to deal with – I know it has been mentioned but injuries have been a regular thing. In midfield all season we have had to deal with setbacks and injuries.

Let’s not beat about the bush: after the first series of games there were question-marks and there will be until we do something or win something. We have put ourselves in a good position and he deserves a lot of credit.”

Vinny Perth celebrates winning Vinny Perth celebrates after Dundalk's victory over St Pat's. Source: Ciaran Culligan/INPHO

The confidence of the players is palpable. Sean Gannon seems unperturbed by the prospect of again facing Abdellah Zoubir – the French-Moroccan with the audacious drag-back – and instead focuses on what Dundalk have to offer.

Both he and Higgins agree that Qarabeg, technically, are the best side Dundalk have faced. “Qarabag obviously have huge pedigree in Europe,” Gannon says.

They’re group stage regulars. I think if we were to beat them it would be a brilliant achievement.”

Gannon gazes out the window of the Hilton Hotel, taking in the enormous new buildings being constructed. “Since I’ve been involved in football, I’ve been to amazing places – places you simply wouldn’t be going to otherwise. It’s a place like Baku you just wouldn’t go to.”

And Baku is quite extraordinary, mixing east and west, post-Soviet with oil wealth.

Sadly, like pretty much everywhere nowadays, too many people are glued to their phones, but this does not feel like a European city.

Dan Kelly buzzes around akin to the sideline-hugging speedster Dundalk fans have already grown to love. He was so excited on his first European trip in Riga that Vinny Perth roomed him with the super-chilled Dane Massey to exact some balance.

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“Even Sean would have a lot more experience of this than me,” Kelly says. “And these games are so different.

“Even at Oriel for the first leg, coming out onto the pitch, it’s an amazing buzz. I am ready for whatever part the manager has in mind for me.”

Daniel Kelly and Sean Gannon Sean Gannon and Dan Kelly at Dublin Airport on Monday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Whatever notions you have of Azerbaijan, there is ample wealth here, and Qarabag will expect nothing more than victory against Dundalk tomorrow evening.

This club, the roots of which belong in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, has become accustomed to making the group stages of European football.

That may be a long way off for Dundalk but Perth appreciates that the hosts will face colossal pressure late on in the game if it remains in the balance.

“They have a few key players obviously we need to try to snuff out but they do have areas of weakness; we saw that in the second half last week,” says Higgins with optimism.

Over in Cyprus, Stephen O’Donnell is preparing to watch APOEL, Dundalk’s opponents if they surprise Qarabag. It is far more likely, of course, that they will be in action in the Europa League next week.

But sending O’Donnell, whose goal in Belgrade for Shamrock Rovers in 2011 created history, to any other venue would be an implication of defeat. That’s not how Dundalk roll.

About the author:

Johnny Ward

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