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Saturday 3 December 2016

Hand of history is on us - Kenny

Dundalk boss tells players to relish clash with mighty Zenit

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny is pictured at a training session in Tallaght Stadium ahead of tonight’s Europa League Group D clash with Russian side Zenit St Petersburg. Pic: Sportsfile
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny is pictured at a training session in Tallaght Stadium ahead of tonight’s Europa League Group D clash with Russian side Zenit St Petersburg. Pic: Sportsfile
Mircea Lucescu. Pic: Sportsfile

History has a habit of giving Irish football a good kicking.

Ten years ago this month, Shelbourne FC were a full-time outfit dotted with international players on their way to their third league in four years, the most successful spell in their history.

A decade on, that golden era is a distant memory for a Shels who have just finished third from bottom in Division One, 45 points off the pace in the second tier.

Telling someone to 'enjoy it while it lasts' may be an Irish habit, our history telling us that disaster, famine or economic collapse is only around the corner.

The ever-confident Stephen Kenny is not predicting an imminent disaster for his Dundalk players, who have all but made history by securing their third successive league title, this club possessing the financial and playing resources to dominate at home and also compete in Europe for the foreseeable future.

Yet he has told his players ahead of tonight's Europa League game with Zenit St Petersburg in Dublin that moments like this will still be talked about and sung about in 10 years' time.

"This is something different," says Kenny ahead of Zenit's first-ever game in Ireland, Mircea Lucescu's side coming to Dublin on form and top of of the tables in the Russian league (joint top) and the Europa League.

"We have worked so hard to get here, this is a great event in people's lives, this is a period that players will reflect on in 10 years' time and really think, this was a special season, they want to be part of big nights.

"That's very evident and that's what you want to get, a real sense of history about the whole thing," added Kenny, who was reminded of a moment in his own past from a decade ago recently, the 10th anniversary of a tussle between his Derry City side and the top club in France.

"You can't predict anything. I was getting texts from players from Derry City who, ten years ago, were playing in the Parc des Princes against Paris St Germain to get into the Europa League.

"You don't know what way your life evolves over the last ten years, they all took different paths, David Forde and Paddy McCourt went on to play for their international teams. I was thinking about this Dundalk team, they'll have similar views, this is the highlight of many of their careers.

"You don't know how things will go in your life so I do think that it is a period that the players should really embrace. It doesn't mean that this year it's all or nothing, we still want to go on over the next couple of years and build on that," added Kenny, still intent on winning a domestic double, the league title almost in hand.

As manager, Kenny has faced some big clubs in Europe (Rosenborg, PSG, Legia Warsaw) but in Zenit, it's possibly the biggest challenge he can go up against, taking on a side who have real ambitions of winning not just the Europa League (and did win its precursor, the UEFA Cup, in 2008) but the Champions League too.

A footballing anorak (in the most positive use of the term), Kenny usually thrives on these European tests, trying to amass as much information as possible on the opposition and, in 71-year-old opponent Mircea Lucescu, he takes on one of the most experienced and wily coaches in the European game, the Romanian already installed as boss of Inter Milan when Kenny was taking his first steps in management with Longford Town.

But the punishing schedule - astonishingly tonight is their sixth game in 18 days, Zenit facing only their third match in that time - has harmed their chances, Kenny patching up injured players and unable to find the time to work on the opponents.

"Am I happy in my own head? No I'm not," he says. "Our preparation couldn't be any worse, in terms of doing nothing on the training ground, dragging fellahs in for hours of video in the middle of it all and not training. I won't know my team until tonight," he says.

"For the other games like BATE, everyone would know exactly what's expected from early in the week from how we train. So, we've had no preparation - but that doesn't mean that we can't rise above all that. Sometimes I think you have to get strength from wherever you can and realise the night that's in it, and grasp it."

Noting that Zenit could afford to turn down a €30million offer from Juventus for Axel Witsel, Kenny puts the focus back on his own side, no parking the bus: "Our success has been based on greater ambition than that and we have to keep that ambition or we'll lose".

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