Of all the opponents Shane Keegan has scouted this season, you might think Arsenal would be the easiest to prepare for.
After all, they’re a side many in the Dundalk dressing room would watch week in, week out and many of the names such as Aubameyang, Lacazette, Partey, Luiz and Tierney roll easily off the tongue.
However, speaking ahead of the trip to London this week Keegan admits that the Gunners are arguably the toughest side to prepare for as it was close to impossible to know what sort of line-up they would go with at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday night.
“To be honest that’s the biggest difficulty from my side of things this week. Normally you can make a fair stab at the opposition’s starting 11 and get it fairly right, which we have done in the past, but Arsenal can pick from 25 players and it’s a complete lucky dip.
“Are they going to go as strong as they went last week or is there going to be fellas like Joe Willock and Emile Smith Rowe given a chance because they’d see us as lesser opposition? Quite possibly, but it’s very frustrating in terms of trying to guess the personnel.
“That’s next or near to impossible but I suppose all we can do is look at is Mikel Arteta’s principles and Arsenal’s principles because they are likely to remain the same regardless of who the personnel are on the pitch.
“They’re likely to defend the same, build-up the same and attack the same so we’ll try and nail down that so at least the boys understand that side of it and then whatever names come out we’ll try deal with that.”
Keegan admitted that Dundalk’s own priorities might have changed in the wake of defeat to Waterford on Sunday with victory over St Patrick’s Athletic next weekend now arguably more important as they look to secure European football for themselves again next summer.
“If we’re being brutally honest, today’s result has to have an impact on our priorities,” he said.
“I’d say the team Filippo was planning on picking Thursday night is now a very, very different team than what he was going to pick because we have to win next Sunday. It’s as simple as that.
“Speaking so closely after a final whistle, there’s a lot of frustration because if we had gone and got a result today then we could really have gone and enjoyed Thursday but it’s slightly different now to be honest but we’ll probably get over it in the next 24 hours or so and we do need to go and give a good account of ourselves on Thursday night.
“I’m not saying we’re going to completely write it off but we can’t have a repeat next week of what we had this week where we just completely took our eye off the ball.”
Keegan, a self confessed Spurs fan, will once again be Dundalk’s only man in the technical area at the Emirates on Thursday as the only Pro Licence holder at the club. While he admits he is enjoying his increased involvement since Vinny Perth’s departure in August, he said he had a lot of sympathy for Filippo Giovagnoli.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying it. It’s going to be an enjoyable couple of days over there but we have to make sure we’re there to play soccer and do our business. We’re not there to be tourists and smile regardless of how the performance goes.
“In terms of being in the technical area, you’d be lying if you said it wasn’t enjoyable being that involved but at the same time I can’t help but put myself in Filippo’s shoes and he must feel like he’s trying to manage with one arm chopped off.
“The fact that we found out so late that that was going to be the situation last Thursday probably meant that we didn’t have our communication lines bedded down quite so well so I think over the next few days the two of us and Giuseppe need to have a chat about how we get those communication lines right and how we make sure that every message he wants put out onto the pitch is put out onto the pitch effectively.”
Keegan also said that Dundalk’s current schedule wasn’t helping the side but admitted they had little excuse to complain.
“Of course it’s tough but unfortunately if you state the fact that it’s tough then other people will interpret that as whinging and moaning. We’re not whinging and moaning. We’re absolutely loving the situation that we’re in but you can be enjoying the situation that you’re in while also the reality is that it is very tough to deal with.
“I was just chatting to Tadhg Ryan as I was coming out there who I had at Galway and he was saying Waterford are off for the next three days. What our lads wouldn’t give for three days off but then what wouldn’t Waterford give to be heading off to the Emirates this Thursday so it swings both ways.
“It is tough and not just tough from a physicality and mentality side but it’s really tough for Filippo and Giuseppe because they’re getting maximum one proper training session to prepare for some massively important games and that’s a really, really crazy scenario.
“You’re used to a working week and how it flows. If you lose one training session out of a working week well then you should still be able to do the vast majority of what you’re trying to cover but when you’re trying to do absolutely everything in the space of one proper training session, that is extremely challenging and that probably did bite us in the arse a bit today.
“Again, it’s the reality of the situation that we’re in so we just have to deal with it and try to get that balance of trying to juggle two balls at the same time a little bit better,” he said.
Dundalk’s very own Benjamin Button Gary Rogers will reach yet another landmark in his storied career when he lines out against Molde at Tallaght Stadium on Thursday.
Should he take his place between the sticks for the clash with the Norwegian champions then it will be the goalkeeper’s 50th European appearance of his career.
At 39, many footballers have either hung up their boots or have seen their powers begin to wane but after big contributions in the victories over Sheriff Tiraspol and KÍ Klaksvik and back-to-back clean sheets in the league last week against Cork City and Bohemians, Rogers is in flying form ahead of what he hopes will be another memorable few months.
“To get to 50 European appearances, I’m pretty happy with that in general but for the 50th one to be in the group stages is pretty special,” he said of Thursday’s landmark.
“Hopefully now I can put in a good performance and mark it with a good result.
“It’s brilliant to have this to look forward to because they’re huge games.
“For the lads who have been here before we’ve tasted it and for the new lads in the squad, it’s a great opportunity and occasion to go and embrace and enjoy. Obviously it’s disappointing that there’s going to be no fans there but it’s still a hell of an achievement to get there and it’s something we’re all looking forward to.
“We’ve had some big games and moments in Europe as well so it’s a big turnaround from six or eight weeks ago. We’re just hoping to go out there and play as well as we can and try and get some points on the board in the group stages.”
Rogers admits that players will have to raise their game to perform in the group stages, like they did in 2016, but he feels the current group are capable of doing that.
“The benefit of having played in it before is that lads know what it’s about. It’s obviously a huge level of football to be playing at and little things will be punished so you’ve got to be on your game. Everyone has got to be eight or nine out of 10 and really playing to the best of their ability but you’ll find our players are good enough to play at that standard and they’ll relish the opportunity to go and show their talents on the big stage. It’s certainly something that we’re all delighted to be there but we all want to go and give a good account of ourselves and the league.
“People have been talking about 2016 for the last four years and all the great nights that we had there. Now we’ve another great experience ahead of us and for lads who are at the same stage as me in their career it’s something that you’ve just really got to cherish and try to make the most of.
“It’s really good to be going into big European nights at this stage of my career and I’m really looking forward to it and I’m sure the rest of the lads are the same.”
Rogers, who lost home and away to Molde in 2013 while at Sligo, is expecting a tough test on Thursday but is hopeful of another memorable night in Tallaght.
“We know they’re a very talented team. There’s a really good standard of football over there. You don’t win their league easily, especially when you’ve a team like Rosenborg in it who we’d all be familiar with. They’ll be difficult opponents but it’s not an insurmountable task.
“Hopefully it’s a good omen to be going back to Tallaght. We picked up our first group stage win there against Maccabi. Hopefully we’ll get off to a really good start. It would be great to get three points on the board and really kick on into the group stages with a positive start,” said the goalkeeper.
Filippo Giovagnoli said he had no concerns over playing Molde FK in Dundalk’s Europa League opener at Tallaght Stadium rather than the Aviva.
It was announced last week that the club’s first match in Group B on October 22nd would now take place in Tallaght rather than the Aviva due to the IRFU needing it for kicking practice.
Asked was this a concern to him, Giovagnoli said: “Not really. I know our players love to play there so that makes me happy.
“For me, a pitch is a pitch. I just worry about the principles of football. The rest doesn’t really matter to me. There are principles that we have to apply but I know the players are happy about it so I’m happy.”
The club’s remaining two home matches against Rapid Wien on November 26th and Arsenal on December 10th are both fixed for the Aviva Stadium as things stand although Dundalk haven’t ruled out the possibility of these being moved either with Windsor Park one possible location being explored.
Will Patching, Joshua Gatt and Dane Massey were the unfortunate trio to miss out when Dundalk submitted their squad for the group stages of the Europa League last week.
Massey, who has featured in 28 European matches for the club, has a long-term injury while Patching and Gatt were unable to be included in the panel as the Lilywhites had reached quotas for non-home grown players.
Giovagnoli said it was a difficult decision to leave players out but said those impacted had taken it well.
“It’s always difficult to leave out players but you have to make decisions and by the rules I could only name a certain number of players and I had to make tough decisions,” he said.
“I did that by what I’ve seen on the pitch and who can give the team at this moment the best support.
“I would love to bring everyone with me but I can’t. We had decisions to make but the players are professional and they accepted it.”
Teenager Jamie Wynne, who was part of the squad for the trip to Moldova and the playoff win over KÍ Klaksvik, is named on List B which includes players born on or after January 1st, 1998 who have been eligible to play for the club for an uninterrupted period of two years after their 15th birthday.
Elsewhere in Group B, Mesut Ozil was the high-profile omission from Arsenal’s squad for the group stages.
The Dundalk Europa League squad in full is as follows…
- Goalkeepers: Gary Rogers, Aaron McCarey, Jimmy Corcoran.
- Defenders: Sean Gannon, Brian Gartland, Sean Hoare, Darragh Leahy, Daniel Cleary, Cameron Dummigan, Andy Boyle.
- Midfielders: Chris Shields, Jordan Flores, John Mountney, Greg Sloggett, Patrick McEleney, Sean Murray, Stefan Colovic, Daniel Kelly.
- Attackers: Michael Duffy, Patrick Hoban, Nathan Oduwa, David McMillan, Jamie Wynne.
Sean Hoare has heard all the stories about Dundalk’s memorable 2016 European run more than once. Now he is hoping to create his own memories by helping the Lilywhites return to the Europa League group stages this season.
The defender was the club’s first signing in the wake of that historic European run in December 2016 with the hope of repeating that feat a large reason for his decision to transfer from St Patrick’s Athletic.
Four years on, the Louth club are still trying to get back to the promised land but if they can beat Sheriff Tiraspol in Moldova on Thursday evening then Filippo Giovagnoli’s side will be just 90 minutes away achieving their dream, with a home tie to follow against either KÍ Klaksvik from the Faroe Islands or Dynamo Tbilisi of Georgia in the Europa League play-off.
Hoare said Dundalk would rarely have a better chance of achieving their aim than this year.
“On the first day of pre-season every single year you come in and talk about Europe and where you want to get to. Obviously we all want to win the league because that’s your bread and butter but we’d talk about Europe.
“I came in just after the Europa League run in 2016 but it’s still something that’s talked about almost every day here. To be involved in that again would be unbelievable,” he said.
“To have a home tie in the play-offs is a massive carrot for us. It’s in front of us now and it’s in our own hands.
“It would be brilliant to get a home tie in the play-offs but we have to do our business right in Moldova first.
“We have to give them the respect they deserve. In the third round of the Europa League, you’re never going to get an easy tie. We’re happy to have a potential home draw to follow but we have to get through this first,” he said.
While Dundalk are daring to dream, Hoare is well aware they will get nothing easy at the SC Sheriff Stadium on Thursday night.
“We’re under no illusions that it’s going to be a very tough game. We’ve done our homework though and we’ll be prepared,” he said.
The 26-year-old has been playing at right back since Giovagnoli arrived to replace Vinny Perth as interim head coach at the end of last month. He feels he has been growing into the role but admits he’d prefer to be in his favoured centre back position.
“It’s been all right,” he said of his full back role.
“I feel it takes a couple of games just to get used to it physically because it demands a different amount of running and you use different aspects of your body but when you get used to it then it’s a good position because you get a lot of the ball and you can get forward a bit more than at centre back.
“Look, I am a centre back and I do prefer playing there but if they want me to play right back then I’m more than happy to do so. I’d play up front if needs be once I’m on the starting 11,” said Hoare.