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After almost two decades in continental limbo, one of the Republic of Ireland's greatest stages for European football is open for business again.
Oriel Park, home of Dundalk FC, has hosted some of the biggest clubs on the continent since the first European tie was played there on 20 September 1967, with Hungary's Vasas SC prevailing 1-0. PSV Eindhoven, Liverpool FC, HNK Hajduk Split, AFC Ajax and FC Porto all lined up there, as famous names of the modern era graced the Oriel turf: René and Willy van de Kerkhof, Osvaldo Ardiles, Glenn Hoddle, Kenny Dalglish, Frank Rijkaard, Arnold Mühren, Dragan Stojković, Robert Prosinečki, Frank Stapleton.
Not many of them won in Dundalk either. The home side's UEFA competition record at Oriel is extremely impressive for what was a part-time outfit. The Lilywhites were undefeated at the venue from 1976 to 14 September 1982, beating Hajduk and drawing against PSV, Celtic FC, Porto and Tottenham Hotspur FC, before a classy Liverpool team won 4-1 in the European Champion Clubs' Cup first round. Leo Flanagan's penalty in that fixture, incidentally, was Dundalk's last European goal on home soil.
Dundalk's last UEFA tie at Oriel was in 1991, with their club competition games in 1995 and 2002 being held elsewhere as the arena did not meet official requirements. However, the current board of directors have worked hard to modernise the ground, installing more seats in the wake of the side qualifying for this season's UEFA Europa League first qualifying round.
Luxembourg's CS Grevenmacher thus have the dubious honour of being the first continental team to play an official match at Oriel Park in nearly 20 years, as they look to improve on a 3-3 home draw from the opening leg. A second qualifying round tie against PFC Levski Sofia is the reward.
The new-look stadium boasts an all-weather synthetic pitch and 3,000 seats, many fitted especially for this game. A big crowd is expected on Thursday, if not the 17,000 that turned out to see Dundalk hold Celtic to a goalless European Cup second-round draw on 7 November 1979. They had overcome Northern Ireland's Linfield FC and Malta's Hibernians FC to reach that stage.
"I think teams were scared of the place," remembered Dermot Keely, a key defender in that Dundalk side. "They just didn't like playing there; you could see that on their faces when they came out."
Today's team can only hope the intimidating atmosphere has not dissipated too much. "It's a big plus for us, going into the Grevenmacher game, that we can play it in our home ground," striker Neale Fenn, a veteran of UEFA competition with Cork City FC and Bohemian FC, told UEFA.com. "If we were forced to play this game somewhere else we would lose a lot, but with a packed stadium behind us we have a great chance of winning the tie and getting through."
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