Progress not cash is target for Dundalk in Champions League draw
DUNDALK'S focus is on progress and not prestige when it comes to next week's draw for the qualifying round of the Champions League, according to manager Stephen Kenny.
And the Oriel Park chief says his side are so focused on their aims in Europe that the mid-season break was a very short one for the players, with Kenny's side shunning the beaches of Europe to work at an intensive training camp in Dublin this weekend to prepare them for the tests ahead.
Monday is a big day for Dundalk as they will learn the identity of their opponents for the second qualifying round of the Champions League, Dundalk's first time to enter the competition since 1991 (they did win the league in 1995 but the champions of Ireland were excluded from the Champions League and relegated to the UEFA Cup at the time).
As Dundalk are unseeded they could end up facing some very big names such as former European Cup winners Celtic and Steaua Bucharest, as well as Lech Poznan, Malmo and Champions League regulars BATE Borisov.
Some fans would welcome a clash with Celtic - especially as Kenny's side would have a decent chance of competing with the Parkhead side - but Kenny fears that a date with the Bhoys could be a distraction, and for him, it's not about getting a glamour tie against a big-name club but a chance to progress, as getting past the second qualifying round would guarantee the Co Louth club six more games in Europe and at least €1million.
"We want to get the team which we have the best chance of beating," Kenny told The Herald.
"I know there is the glamour of getting a high-profile club to play but that's not of interest to me. We are unseeded, so we will be playing a team ranked above us, and it's important we get a team that we have a chance of beating.
"There is a huge incentive here, if we get through this round you have a minimum of six matches and that's a massive incentive for a club like us," added Kenny, aware that Celtic's name could well come out of the drum.
"Celtic didn't make the group stages last year so obviously they'll be desperate to qualify this year. I know that Celtic could be a distraction.
"You can get distracted if you allow yourself but playing a side like Celtic would raise the levels in every training session, we are trying to raise the standard in training all the time
"We feel we are improving and I think our experience in Europe last year, where we won three games out of four, will stand us in good stead. We have to keep an eye on the league, we have three league games before we play in Europe so our focus is on the next game, against Limerick.
"We are very proud as a club to represent Ireland in the champions League, we have come the hard way, from the bottom of the division, so we will prepare well to give ourselves every chance as we have to play above ourselves."
That attraction of Euro progress is one of the reasons why Dundalk only had a short break. There is no League of Ireland action this week due to the mid-season break but while Kenny did give his players some time off, there was no long holiday.
"There's no point in us being off on a beach somewhere and then expecting peak in three weeks' time in the Champions League and play above ourselves, because we will have to play above ourselves to beat a team who are ranked above us. We are making sure we are well-prepared, we trained yesterday and we will train in Malahide this weekend," Kenny says.
"The players had four days off and it's important to give them some time to spend with family, but when you are planning for Europe you can't just take a week off and then expect to do well in the Champions League. We are in mid-season and I want that to be an advantage to us. We will have to go up a level in terms of performance to progress but I think we can do it."
Dundalk's list of potential opponents in the draw for the second qualifying round includes clubs with a very strong European pedigree (Celtic, Steaua Bucharest, Dinamo Zagreb, Lech Poznan, Partizan Belgrade, Malmo, HJK Helsinki) and clubs who have recently made the group stages of the competition (Apoel Nicosia, Bate Borisov, Ludgorets Razgrad, Maribor, Midtjylland).
The best option for Dundalk's progress could be a meeting with a side like Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel), Qarabag (Azerbaijan), Molde (Norway), Videoton (Hungary) or Skenderbeu (Albania), although some of those clubs would throw up a logistical problem for Dundalk and their fans in terms of travel.
"Clubs like BATE and Ludgorets have been in the group stages, a big advantage to them, in terms of their experience," Kenny says.