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Tuesday 25 July 2017

Patrick ready to face tough Euro mission

Patrick McEleney of Dundalk. Photo: Sportsfile
Patrick McEleney of Dundalk. Photo: Sportsfile

When he left his English club after just three months and returned home to Ireland, the future was not so bright for a 16-year-old Patrick McEleney.

Tonight, a more mature McEleney will be central for a Dundalk side who take the first step towards emulating last season's European exploits, when they face up to Rosenborg.

The Norwegian side were once the darlings of Scandinavia and a regular feature in the Champions League group stages, who dipped into obscurity for a while but are now a club with serious ambitions of being serious competitors in Europe again.

Dundalk have gone toe to toe with big European clubs in the last two seasons but Rosenborg, reigning champions of Norway and likely to win the league there again this season, come to Oriel Park with a spring in their step.

They boast talents like Nicklas Bendtner, one of Denmark's all-time top scorers and Matthías Vilhjálmsson, a key man for Iceland as well as Milan Jevtovic, an emerging talent from Serbia.

Manager of Dundalk Stephen Kenny during a press conference at Oriel Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Manager of Dundalk Stephen Kenny during a press conference at Oriel Park. Photo: Sportsfile

Pressure

Rosenborg have wo n all of their European encounters with Irish clubs, north and south, so they are favourites for this tie, but McEleney (24) admits there is more expected of his side since their heroics last year - pressure they can deal with.

"I think there will be a bit more expectancy but I think people still need to realise who we are and who we're playing against," says the Derry native.

"But I think the biggest belief will be in our changing room and knowing what we're capable of on these nights and looking back on last year. It's going to be really interesting and we're all looking forward to it.

"These are the games you want to be involved in and the games you need to produce in. I'm really looking forward to it as I put that pressure on myself as well. It will be interesting to see how I do."

Dundalk are on form in the league but that's largely down to McEleney's own form, a string of impressive appearances earning him the vote for June's player of the month from the SSE Airtricity Soccer Writers Association of Ireland.

McEleney always had talent: bringing it to the fore was the challenge.

He was spotted in his native Derry at an early age, a ridiculously early age, going on trial to Premier League clubs when he was just nine years old.

"I think at 10, Man City tried to move my family over. we turned it down. I was too young," he says.

"I was going to Man City, United, Charlton. Everywhere, backwards and forwards at that age up to 16 when I went to Sunderland."

But he lasted just three months of a three-year contract with the Black Cats. "It just wasn't for me at the time. I just didn't want to stay there. I was sick of it, to be honest," he says.

"Even when I came home I wasn't playing football. I started to play with my mates and Stephen [Kenny] just came to my door and asked if I'd come up and give it a bash. I just went up and tried."

His career took off, first with Derry and now Dundalk where Champions League football beckons again, ahead of the bright lights of England. "The success I've had in Ireland has been enough for me at the moment," says McEleney, previously capped at U19 level by the Republic but whose international future is unclear, with Northern Ireland on the radar.

McEleney credits Kenny, and his offer to come and play for Derry, in turning his career around and now he wants to deliver on the big stage.

As do Dundalk. Key for Kenny in this tie is the preparation: the squad had a week-long lead in to tonight's tie. That's a stark contrast to the last time that Kenny faced Rosenborg, when he was Bohemians boss in the Champions League in 2003.

Kenny's side had to play an FAI Cup game on a Sunday evening, away to Dundalk as it happens, and then fly out to Norway to try and overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg.

"Our preparations weren't good for it," Kenny recalls of that tie where Bohs lost 5-0 on aggregate, taught a lesson in Trondheim in what was a record defeat in his 38-game managerial career in European competition.

"We chased the [away] game a bit but they were better than us and we were well beaten. They were a very good team then.

"They were in the group stages of the Champions League eight years in a row before they played us.

"And I wouldn't underestimate this Rosenborg team, they've won the double double and you have to respect that. They have a winning mentality in their team to win both trophies two years a in a row."

A challenge for Dundalk, but also an opportunity. "This is a great time in everyone's life to go and play Champion League football. You can never take that for granted," Kenny reflects.

"Every opportunity you get to play in the Champions League, to coach in it, you have to grasp it. It's a fantastic opportunity."

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