Dundalk’s European adventure begins again next month, with Rosenborg standing between them and a place in the next qualifying round of the Champions League.
Stephen Kenny’s side will be up against it when they take on the Norwegians, whose European experience over the past two decades far outweighs their own. However, being up against it is something that they have become accustomed to over the past twelve months, navigating their way past the likes of BATE Borisov and defeating Maccabi Tel Aviv in last season’s Europa League group stage.
However, that deeply impressive European run last season came at a time when confidence was booming and Stephen Kenny’s table-toppers would have felt invincible. This season’s run, should there be one, will be markedly different.
For starters, and this is sad but unavoidable, some of that wide-eyed magic of last year will be gone. Dundalk will be treading on a path this season that they walked last year, and as such the expectation will probably be higher.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing as such, as progression in one year should yield a certain amount of expectation the following season, but Dundalk are a different outfit in many ways to the one that such a stir last season.
And therein lies a dilemma for Kenny and Dundalk. There was never really a question of the Lilywhites prioritising one competition over the other last season, as will be the case with Cork City this season, but they are not the all-conquering side that they were last year. They are in very good form right now but, as City showed earlier this month, they are still vulnerable in pressure situations.
With Cork City not in domestic action again for nearly a fortnight, Dundalk have a chance to slash that monstrous 15-point gap in at the top of the table (not accounting for the three games in hand that the leaders will have built up at that stage).
Realistically, they need maximum points from the trip to Bray on Friday and the Bohs clash next week if they want to at least keep up the pretence that there is a title race going on. If they drop points in either then it is simply further confirmation of what both we, and indeed they if they searched deep enough, already know. It’s all over bar the shouting.
Much of Kenny’s rhetoric recently has been about consolidating second place and keeping Bray, Derry and Shamrock Rovers at bay rather than chasing Cork, and while he is in the game long enough to know that his side will retain hope of winning a fourth consecutive title until it’s mathematically impossible, every passing week brings them closer to the end of the season with, as of now, very little to show for it in terms relative to 2016.
They could yet win either or both domestic cups, of course, but the league is and always will be the one that they want the most.
And that might not be such a bad thing for their European campaign. As of now, they’re not quite sure if they should stick or twist. Theoretically, the league title has not been won yet, and while there remains that slight hope then there will always be a slight reluctance to give up on it fully.
However, the elephant in the room is that in all likelihood, the league title won’t be heading to Oriel Park at the end of the season. That’s how important European progression has now become as without it, rightly or wrongly, it implies that this side has gone backwards, that losing Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle and Ronan Finn has seen them regress.
While that’s not really fair in reality, as Cork City’s current run is ridiculous and Rosenborg are a team with established European pedigree, perception and reality can be mutually exclusive sometimes.
And that’s without even getting into the financial reward that European progression brings in.
The 3-0 defeat to Cork City aside, Dundalk have been in fine form in recent weeks – Patrick McEleney is playing like the talisman everyone knows he can be, David McMillan is banging in goals for fun, the defence has solidified – and while a lot of that comes from them simply being better than most of the teams in the division, they seem to be happier now than they had been at any other time this season.
Is that because, on some level, they have accepted that John Caulfield’s Leesiders are just too far in front? Is that the mentality they need to harness for what is essentially the blank slate of Europe this year?
Going into every Premier Division game with the mentality of a dog chasing a car that has already driven into the distance must have been exhausting; going into Europe now with the aim of trying to play with freedom under the heightened expectation is a challenge, but Stephen Kenny has never been one to shy away from a challenge.