Shields: Focus is on Esch win
Dundalk aim to make Europa tie with Hajduk a reality
THEY are the team that has come from nowhere, the hard-luck story turned good - the crowd of rejects who are a celebration of what's possible.
And this evening in Oriel Park, Chris Shields and Dundalk will aim to shake up Europe in the same way they have changed the way people think of them in Ireland.
Not so long ago, they were looked down upon, a club that was falling apart in their down-at-heel ground, struggling to pay the wages and finding it harder still to gather points."I was the skipper," said Shields of that 2012 season, "and it felt like being captain of a sinking ship. One week we were on the brink of going under.
We were losing games 7-0. We were not getting paid. And tonight we take a 2-0 lead into the second leg of a Europa League game. That's some turnaround."It certainly is. Yet it isn't just the club that has turned around, they now has a thriving merchandise section, that has to cope with a demand for tickets, that wins matches and hopes to soon win trophies.
The players too have been rehabilitated. Shields, the captain then, is a foot-soldier now but altogether happier. "All my career I was fighting relegation. But now look at us. Players who were either in the First Division or were, like me, hoping to stay in the Premier Division are loving every second of the season."We've seen the hard side of the game, the wage-cuts and the low expectations. To be playing in Europe and playing every game where you expect to win - well, that's just completely different.
"And it's different because in November 2012 Dundalk appointed a different type of manager to everyone else who is out there, opting not just for a football man but a person who thrives as an outsider in provincial clubs, who sells the merits of a town back to the people who live in it and who specialises in polishing uncut gems.
Shields is one of those. A defensive midfielder, his selflessness allows the playmakers in the side to weave their magic. "My confidence playing under Stephen Kenny is higher than it has been playing under anyone else," he says.
And it's easy to see why. Kenny infuses players with belief, repairing their fragile confidence and all the while telling them they can embark on a journey together. And tonight, if they seal the deal against the Luxembourg side, Jeunesse Esch, that journey will take them to Croatia and a second round date with Hajduk Split, the team who Shelbourne defeated on a memorable night in Tolka Park a decade ago.
"Having Hajduk in the draw is a big incentive," said Shields, "but we are off limits talking about it. We have been warned not get carried away."Yet keeping a lid on the hype isn't easy. Shields, a Dubliner, who has moved to live in Dundalk has found it hard to escape people's excitement.
"You don't walk to the shop without four or five people stopping to talk to you," he says. "The town is football mad. We see it when we go into schools for Q&A sessions. We see it when we drive around and see kids wearing Dundalk jerseys."There is a virtuous circle going on. Dundalk people are thrilled that we are doing well and we are playing better because of the support they're giving us. It's an amazing experience to be a part of."