Despite struggles in the Airtricity Premier Division and managerial switch-ups, Dundalk FC have earned themselves a spot in the Europa League group stages. Ronán Daly charts Dundalk FC’s recent journey from a dominant and consistent side under Kenny to their recent poor domestic form and European delight behind closed doors.
Four years ago, a 1-0 victory against Maccabi Tel-Aviv for Dundalk was a first European group stage win by an Irish club. The side, now with Filippo Giovagnoli at the helm, will hope for similar success on their upcoming European run, after beating Faroese side KÍ (Klaksvíkar Ítróttarfelag) to become only the third Irish team to advance to the European group stages
Remarkably, Dundalk currently sit 6th in the league of Ireland (at time of writing), 20 points off runaway leaders Rovers and have reached the Europa League group round despite their stuttering domestic campaign. When Shamrock Rovers qualified for the same competition in 2011, they were coming off back to back league titles, and the last time Dundalk made it to the group stages they were at the peak of their powers under Stephen Kenny.
When Kenny left to take up his dream job as Ireland U-21 Manager his number 2 during his time at the Lilywhites, Vinny Perth, was trusted to take control of first team matters. The appointment of Perth was made complicated as he didn’t have his UEFA pro license, so former Manager, John Gill, was brought back as a coach and video analyst Ruadhrí Higgins was promoted to the position of assistant manager.
In his first season as manager, Perth’s side clinched the league title, league cup and defeated Latvian Champions, Riga, in the first qualifying round of the Champions League. It looked like Perth had successfully made the transition from assistant to manager. However, a run of three defeats and a draw in four league games after the LOI restart in July and an embarrassing 3-0 defeat to unseeded Slovenian champions, Celje, saw him suddenly out of a job.
To many, sacking Perth after a five game run of bad form would seem harsh and many of the Lilywhite faithfuls were unhappy with the news, however, the cracks had begun to show. Before the LOI was called to a halt in March due to the ongoing pandemic, Dundalk had started relatively well, picking up 4 wins in their opening 5 games. With clubs ready to return to action in July, Perth was hit with an unexpected curveball when his trusty assistant, Ruadhrí Higgins, was recruited by Stephen Kenny for his Ireland set up. Despite completing his UEFA pro license during lockdown, Perth was dismissed shortly after the resumption of matches.
Along with losing his right-hand man there was upset in the dressing room over the treatment of certain players. Perth also had to contend with his new American CEO, Bill Hulsizer, signing players he didn’t want, namely American duo Taner Dogan and Josh Gatt - the latter he claimed to have signed because he was moved by an interview he did with ESPN. Eventually the on field performances and off field unrest took its toll and Perth was shown the door, along with John Gill and Alan Reynolds, who had only just been appointed as assistant manager following Higgins departure.
As opposition fans revelled in Irish football's dominant force falling apart, the Lilywhite faithful eagerly awaited the name of the man who was going to rescue their season. To the surprise of everyone, an Italian name began to be linked with the job, Filippo Giovagnoli. This is Giovagnoli’s first venture into senior football. Previously he had worked as the technical director on AC Milan’s summer camps, the U19’s coach of Serie C side Gubbio 1910 and was the director of coaching at New York’s Metropolitan Oval academy. Not exactly the pedigree Dundalk fans had hoped for.
In his first interview with Dundalk on their media channels he was asked if Dundalk fans had a right to be worried and he responded “they should be concerned” and before he landed in Ireland he messaged a friend telling them he was on a “Kamikaze mission”. Giovagnoli hit the ground running in the border town by winning his first game 2-0 away to Cobh Ramblers. He followed this up with a 3-2 league victory over Shelbourne and a 1-0 second round Europa league Qualifier victory against Andorran champions Inter Club d’Escaldes.
Dundalk then shocked everyone by defeating Moldovan Champions, Sheriff Tiraspol on penalties after a 1-1 draw to set up a play-off tie against Faroese champions KÍ. Dundalk triumphed 3-1 over KÍ in an empty Aviva stadium thanks to goals from Daniel Kelly, Daniel Cleary, and Sean Murray. Murray couldn’t get near the starting eleven before Perth’s departure and was also the goal scorer in Tiraspol.
I was one of the fortunate few to be in the Aviva to witness my hometown club’s heroics, finding myself to be a lonely figure in the Lansdowne road end for the majority of the evening. A completely different atmosphere to when Dundalk beat BATE Borisov in a sold out Tallaght stadium in 2016, but a truly special night for the town and Irish football all the same.
The victory meant Dundalk were awarded with a glamour tie against Premier League giants Arsenal as well trips to Vienna and Norwegian side Molde. The man now locally adored as “Papa Filippo” is reaching heights no one could have imagined on his Kamikaze mission in Ireland.