As they sat to face the media at the Aviva Stadium after the victory over KÍ Klaksvik on Thursday night, it was hard for either Daniel Kelly or Brian Gartland to stop smiling.
It has been some turnaround for both men as Dundalk turned their season around to reach the Europa League group stages.
Less than two months earlier on August 7th, they had arguably reached their lowest points personally during their side’s 2-1 defeat away to Bohemians.
Kelly was taken off midway through the first half by then manager Vinny Perth and his confidence at that point was on the floor. Meanwhile Gartland commented afterwards that there was more chance of him winning the Lotto than getting some game time.
Fast forward to now and everyone has hit the jackpot at Oriel Park.
It was a particularly special moment for Ringsend man Kelly to score the crucial 79th minute goal which clinched the win for his side.
Scoring in the Aviva was something he has always dreamed of and now he had done it and in some style too.
“It was unbelievable,” he said.
“I was dreaming about it all last night. I didn’t know if I was going to be playing but I knew I’d get my chance at some stage. It took about a half an hour to go in but it went in and it was an unbelievable feeling.
“I was looking at the left full after about 50 or 60 minutes and he was blowing a bit so I said to myself if I do get on I can get at him. I got at him straight away and it was a great ball by Sean Murray and thankfully it went in. There were unbelievable scenes then.”
Kelly said he was now looking forward to creating his own Europa League memories having heard plenty about the 2016 side’s exploits.
“Ah stop. They haven’t stopped talking about it but at least I can say it to the next lads who come in now,” he laughed.
“Just to be a part of it is special. I watched all the games in 2016 and to be part of it now is unbelievable.”
Gartland was the player to face the media after Dundalk’s 3-0 Champions League defeat against NK Celje in August. If you had told him then he’d be in the group stages just a few weeks later what would he have said?
“What are you smoking?,” he laughed.
“It was a completely different conversation that night and we were in a completely different place but that’s football. A week is a long time. Sometimes you don’t know how or why things happen but we’re just thankful that we’re here now.
“Football is a game of opinions and you have to take it some time because there will always be people who don’t fancy you. You just have to never stop working and keep trying so that if you are called upon to help the team then you’re ready. There was a bit of luck on my part that I’ve come in and my performances I thought have been decent. Like everyone, they can always be better but like I said a week is a long time in football and the last month or so have shown that because it has been like a change around of a couple of years.”
Gartland, who missed his son Bobbie’s first birthday due to the Klaksvik game, said qualification now meant more to him than when it was achieved in 2016.
“For me personally, yeah. A lot of us have had a lot of stuff flung at us and as I’m getting older a lot of people write you off. That’s just football though, it’s all about opinions but it’s always nice to prove them wrong but I think this group and this journey symbolises that.
“Look at where we were and the stuff we had to go through in the last couple of months but the mental strength and fortitude from everyone in the dressing room to stick to it and not give in was superb. We backed ourselves, worked our socks off and this is our reward.”
The defender also praised interim head coach Filippo Giovagnoli for the impact he has had.
“On the first day he came in and got amongst the players and talked really well. He’s confident and really assured in his speech. He told us he had a plan. Confidence breeds confidence. That’s the best way to put it.
“He talks well. He doesn’t talk too often so his word carries more weight. His mannerisms breeds confidence in people and he gets on really well with all the lads. When you’ve people who are happy you’ll get a response.”
And what a response it has been!