Friday 28th October 2016, League of Ireland Premier Division
Pack up your turnip lanterns and call me Eoin because the Partizan Bristle/Pint of Football Four Day Four Nation Groundhopping Extravaganza™ is upon us. Days were booked off work, logistics were fawned over and a plane was caught from Birmingham for the start of a glorious football road trip where Daz and I would be taking in matches in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales (kind of) and good old England.
First on the list were current Irish champions and darlings of the Europa league, Dundalk. Daz's irrepressible fascination with overseas leagues was the genesis of this trip as he'd been following Dundalk's European exploits and decided we should get in on what was proving to be a historic run in the history of Irish football.
Dundalk qualified for the qualifying rounds of the Champions League and progressed well, overcoming Iceland's Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar and Belarus' FC BATE Borisov before succumbing to Polish champions Legia Warsaw. Dropping to the Europa League group stage, the Lilywhites were able to hold AZ Alkmaar to a draw at AFAS Stadion as well as beat Maccabi Tel Aviv 1-0 at Shamrock Rovers' ground Tallaght Stadium. A week previous to today Dundalk had their first defeat in the group stage at Tallaght to Russian giants Zenit St. Petersburg in a hard-fought contest where they scored first but ended up losing 2-1.
As well as their European heroics, Dundalk also stormed the domestic league this season and had in fact already won the title the previous Sunday at home against Bohemians. If that wasn't enough, Dundalk also have an FAI Cup final coming up on the first Sunday of November at the national stadium against Cork City.
We had originally planned to go and watch a Europa fixture however a tip-off from another groundhopper about the underwhelming and temporary feel of Tallaght Stadium led us to forgo the glamour of European football and seek out a league game at the more characterful Oriel Park, with the added bonus of getting in on the end-of-season party.
After a long journey we arrived in the sleepy town of Dundalk. A special mention must go to our kindly B&B owner Larry who offered us a lift to the ground, without which we would have almost certainly missed kick-off. He also does a smashing white pudding and soda bread.
We picked up our tickets and squeezed our way into the ground which was packed to the rafters and buzzing with a carnival atmosphere. Half the crowd were stood on their seat or sat on the perimeter wall and the noise coming from the small shed opposite the main stand was lovely to hear. It was obvious that the locals were intent on partying through the 90 mins judging by the smell of weed coming from some of the stands or the bloke that wandered out of the clubhouse, glass pint in hand and went to chat a steward, who then had a sip himself. The very stuff of life. Even the 10 or so Galway fans that had made the final trip of the season were in fine voice, with their drum and flags loud and proud.
Oriel Park is another traditional ground that has opted to bring in a modern 3G pitch and in order to fulfil their European commitments there are a lot more seated areas than you might expect from such a small ground. As previously mentioned there is a small roofed portion of seats opposite the main stand with more uncovered seats to either side. This roofed portion is where the large majority of the noise was coming from and they did an amazing job of keeping it going all night, which I suppose is easy when you've won three league titles in a row. The main stand is a pretty harrowing looking pillared grey beast which seats 1,000. There are more uncovered ground level seats to the right and to the left is the away end which is half seats and half ancient terrace split in half diagonally. Both ends of the ground are empty save for an access road for the youth academy and a large grass verge. Due to the absolutely rammed nature of the place, this verge is where we ended up standing and it afforded us a great view to be fair. It's not a pretty ground for sure but it didn't matter tonight and we were caught up in the excitement immediately.
As expected from the league leaders, Dundalk inflicted absolute carnage during the first half and were 3-0 up by the 39th minute, playing fast-paced passing football with the ever present menace of Daryl Horgan and his driving runs and cuts into the Galway box. Ulsterman Dean Shiels netted the first, followed by an odd one from Paddy Barrett who lamped what looked like a cross into the box which the Galway keeper Conor Winn gathered but then fumbled into his own net. Dean Shiels netted his brace soon after, ably assisted by Robbie Benson in a nifty one-two followed by a chip over the committed Winn.
Out into the second half and the visitors regain some pride early on when a strong shot from Ryan Connolly is parried by Gabriel Sava for Connolly to easily slot home on the rebound. This didn't cause the singers in the shed to pause their song even for a second. As the match trundled towards it's conclusion and kids hopped over the walls ready to run onto the pitch there was a sense that the team wanted more. After a 10 or so minute period of sustained pressure it was Ciaran Kilduff who ran clear and poked in the final goal in injury time. The rejoicing was such that the ref couldn't be troubled to clear the pitch and complete the other two minutes of injury time.
After soaking it in for a while, Daz and I decided to beat the crowds and duck in for a pint. I'd say the real jewel in the crown of Oriel Park is the clubhouse which is basically a massive Irish pub underneath the stand. We had a lovely time listening to bonkers Irish folk-pop and passing around a bottle of questionable free fizz given out by the club. It was truly a privilege to share in a special day for Dundalk and Irish football in general. I'll definitely be keeping a look out for the Lilywhites for the rest of their European run and wish them the best of luck.