Wednesday 23 January 2019

Shock wave in the snow

Local media joke about Dundalk but Kenny eyes history

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny outside the team hotel St Petersburg.
Photo: Sportsfile
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny outside the team hotel St Petersburg. Photo: Sportsfile
Dundalk players Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan after been included in the Republic of Ireland squad by manager Martin O'Neill, outside the Church of the Savior in St.Petersburg, Russia

It took Stephen Kenny less than a minute to stroll from Dundalk's team hotel in St Petersburg to the Palace Square, scene of so many episodes and so much bloodshed in the past.

A keen student of history, Kenny took a few minutes away from his preparations yesterday to clear the head and walk around to get a feel for the city where the revolution of 1917 was bred, and his Dundalk team are aware of what would happen if his side manage to pull off a result in what used to be called Petrograd against the highest-ranking side in this competition, Zenit.

In Ireland, there's been a near-obsession with the amount of money that Dundalk can make from their European run this year, but in Russia, it's a different vibe.

The revelation this week by UEFA that Zenit netted €30million for their Champions League campaign last season barely merited a paragraph yesterday in Sport Express, the sports daily newspaper which is keenly read here while in Ireland, even Marian Finucane is keen to talk about how much Dundalk will bank away from their European adventure of 2016.

With the sequence of a draw, a win and a loss from Dundalk's three Europa League games to date, a big and brave effort is needed amid the snow and chilled air of St Petersburg tonight - and bear in mind that the game kicks off at 9pm local time, when temperatures test the resolve of even hardy locals.

Yet Kenny, his squad's morale boosted by yesterday's international call-ups for Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle, feel that this incredible story has more chapters to be written.

"What we have to do is collectively believe that we can get an extraordinary result, and how can we do that," Kenny said yesterday.

"I am led to believe that they are the highest-ranked team in the competition and we are the lowest, so for us to get a victory or a result would be a real shock throughout Europe, if we got that it would put us in a very strong position in the group."

A snowfall in the city last night and dropping temperatures put more challenges in front of Kenny and his players, while they also face up to what Zenit hope will be a coronation of sorts, a win which would put them through to the last 32 and allow them use their remaining two group games to rest players to focus on the task in the Russian league, Zenit presently joint top.

The road to this Russian city was not as smooth as planned, as issues with their charter flight from Dublin led to a very late arrival in St Petersburg. "I think we had the latest video session in the history of the Europa League, Kenny jokes. "I was asking the players to just hang in there to see if we could break the world record on that, we had a meeting until 2.10am."

But even before they left Dublin, small matters made a big impact on Kenny and his crew. The manager of one of the food outlets in Dublin Airport invited the squad in for a free breakfast - under previous regimes at a crisis-era Dundalk, they only got stuff for free because they opted not to pay their bills but now, everyone wants in on the Dundalk story.

"The manager of this place in the airport said 'sit down here, you're doing the league and football so proud'," Kenny says, the squad also getting pats on the back as they were being patted down.

"All the people at the check-in, going through security frisking players were saying 'come on and do it'. It's a bizarre situation, even people coming up randomly in the airport and saying 'you're doing the league proud'," says Kenny.

"There's been a huge element of that. locally and national around the place it has captured the imagination and that that's why we have to continue to do well.

"But we can't just stop and pat ourselves on the back because we've had a couple of good results. You've got to push on and try and do better again. This would be bigger again if we were to get a result here."

The home game with Zenit was played with the backdrop of Dundalk trying to retain a league title with a punishing fixture list but they have come to Russia with a break since their last game.

The home club seem not too fussed about the visitors and questions to Kenny from the Russian media at last night's pre-match press conference in the match stadium verged on the farcical. One hack wanted to know what Kenny's players got for their gaffer to celebrate his birthday on Sunday, and he was also quizzed about how some of his squad manage to combine their day jobs with a football career, pointing out that Dundalk players are employed as an architect, a basketball coach and an electrician.

Kenny joked that David McMillan would score the goals which would allow Dundalk fund a new stadium and then design the new ground in his role as an architect. Yet he's deadly serious about this game.

"There is a lot to be impressed about this Zenit side," he says. "They're a brilliant team but we'll have to be brilliant tomorrow night to get something extraordinary. We are capable of that."

Europa League: Zenit St Petersburg v Dundalk, live Eir Sport (KO 6.0)

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