Housemates Stephen O'Donnell and Robbie Benson tell UEFA.com how Dundalk are raising the bar for Irish football, barely four years after the club were facing footballing oblivion.
Article top media content
Transformed under manager Stephen Kenny since 2013, Dundalk have gone from the verge of dissolution to the UEFA Europa League group stage, becoming only the second Irish side, after Shamrock Rovers in 2011/12, to make it this far in a UEFA club competition.
A semi-professional outfit, they kick off at AZ Alkmaar on Thursday as massive underdogs, yet they are delighted to be involved. "It means everything," said midfielder Robbie Benson, 24. "Every player wants to play at the highest level they can, and to showcase our talents on a stage as big as that."
Captain Stephen O'Donnell hopes they can continue the vein of form that took them to within sight of the UEFA Champions League group stage, Legia Warszawa proving just too strong in the play-offs after Dundalk had eliminated Iceland's FH Hafnarfjördur and then seasoned European campaigners BATE Borisov. "Playing away suits us," he told UEFA.com. "I think it leaves more space for our little attacking players to exploit when teams come on to us quite a lot."
Dundalk's group stage debut is the latest accolade for a team that have won two successive Irish titles under Kenny, who was appointed in 2013. "He's a brilliant man-manager," explained 30-year-old midfielder O'Donnell. "Brilliant at instilling confidence in his players. He has us all going out before each game feeling ten-foot tall and that we can take anyone on."
Getting that confidence so high within a squad assembled on the hoof is quite an achievement. "The whole squad was assembled when the manager came in four seasons ago," acknowledged O'Donnell, who conceded: "Not many other teams in the league wanted to sign most of us, so I think that gives you the bit between your teeth of trying to prove people wrong.
"From day one we've had that among us, and the manager has been very good in signing players with good character to add to that squad. It's the best dressing room I've been involved in."
While many of the players are based an hour's drive away in Dublin, a good number live in Dundalk, where they have felt the buzz the club's success has brought. O'Donnell and Benson – who has a master's degree in actuarial science to fall back on – are among five players sharing a house in the town.
"It's a bit messy but we all enjoy it," O'Donnell conceded. "And when you're out on the pitch with four of five lads you live with, there's a good camaraderie and obviously you're wanting to stick up for your mates. Who is the worst one to live with? I think if you asked the other four boys, it's definitely me. John Mountney and Robbie Benson are the chefs, the rest of us do the cleaning up and that, so we dovetail quite well together."
If they can create and tidy up effectively on the pitch on Thursday, Dundalk could yet produce more surprises.