As birthdays go, a trip to Vienna might seem like as good a way to mark it as any but Brian Gartland is not travelling to Austria this week to enjoy himself.
The Dundalk centre half will turn 34 this Wednesday, just 24 hours before his side do battle with Rapid Wien in their third Europa League group stage game at the Allianz Stadion (kick-off 5.55pm, live on Virgin Media Two).
Preparation for the big game will likely mean that even a slice of cake is out of the question but it’s something Gartland has got used to in recent years with his birthday frequently clashing with big matches at home and abroad.
In 2015, it came just four days out from his first Cup final while a year later he was flying back from St Petersburg two days out from another shown with Cork City in the Aviva Stadium. In 2017, it was a day before the Cup final defeat on penalties to Cork although he at least got to celebrate in style in 2018 when Dundalk clinched the double under Stephen Kenny on the day of his birthday.
There was disappointment last year, of course, when Dundalk lost the Cup final to Shamrock Rovers the day after his birthday but the Unite the Union Cup match away to Linfield four days later meant he couldn’t even drown his sorrows.
Indeed, you have to go back to 2014 for the last time Gartland was fully free to mark his birthday the way he wanted but the defender says he has no regrets about putting big celebrations on hold for a few more years yet.
“When I retire I’ll have a birthday,” he grinned.
“I don’t know what it will be like this year. The birthdays have been up and down and the mood of them has been determined either by the Cup final or European game that we were playing the day of it, the day before or the day after it.
“I think 2014 was the last time I was off for it and I probably went hell for leather the weekend before so I was dead that week if I can remember,” he laughed.
“It’s great to be in that position though to have massive Cup final or European games. There’ll be plenty of time to celebrate after but hopefully I can mark it in style.”
Both Dundalk and Rapid go into Thursday’s game without a point in Group B to date but Gartland says he believes Filippo Giovagnoli’s side have what it takes to shock the Austrians.
“Any points picked up in Europe would be massive,” he said.
“We know the disparity in terms of the size of all the clubs in terms of finances, resources, players and everything that goes with it but when you go on to the pitch none of that comes into your head. You just go and play the game.
“We’ve shown in patches what we’re capable of particularly in the first half against Molde. Against Arsenal, there were a lot of positives to take from it. We were under pressure, as you’d expect, but we were comfortable and then we gave a goal away before half-time. That’s disappointing but aside from a couple of mistakes there were a lot of positives to take from that game. They’ve got one of the best presses in the Premier League but we played some good football through it, out from our goalkeeper and out from the back.
“As a unit defending, it’s not something we’re used to in terms of going side to side and the other team having a lot off the ball but we showed such discipline and tactical discipline and in a new shape so there were a lot of positives there in terms of being hard to break down. You need that in Europe when you’re going up against quality sides but hopefully now the next step is building on it and taking points in the group.”
The game in Vienna is not the only big one this week either with Dundalk’s draw away to St Patrick’s Athletic on Sunday meaning they still need at least a point at home to Sligo Rovers on Sunday (kick-off 7.45pm) to ensure third place and guaranteed European football for next season.
That means that Dundalk cannot fully focus on the Rapid game.
“We’ve only got ourselves to blame for that because it should have been done and dusted ages ago,” said Gartland.
“We had draws against Harps and Bohs, even Waterford at home. Then down in Waterford, it would have been done and dusted had we even taken a draw there. We have ourselves to blame but we’ve got to do the business next week now.
“I think the Pat’s game was similar to a few of our games in the last while where we’ve been controlling games in the first half and then in the second half, I don’t know what it is but we’re letting teams get on top of us. It can’t happen and it shouldn’t be happening.
“We should be too strong for any team in this league. That’s very disappointing. They were heaping on pressure on us and we were inviting it on because we weren’t keeping the ball in the second half. If you keep doing that and giving it back to them you create problems for yourself.”
Gartland described some results recently as “unacceptable” but remains confident Dundalk can get the job done against Sligo.
“It would be catastrophic for the club to miss out on Europe but it’s unacceptable that we’re even battling for third at the moment. Make no mistake about it, for the players it is unacceptable as well but it’s where we are and it’s what we have to do.
“You can’t be feeling sorry for yourself or pointing fingers. We’ll look at ourselves and say that has to be better. We have to be better, individually and collectively, and that’s what we’ll need next week to finish off the job,” he said.