After a slightly more-difficult-than-it-should've-been win over Rapid Wien, Arsenal welcome Dundalk to the Emirates Stadium for their second game of their Europa League campaign on Thursday night.
Despite being from just across the Irish Sea, many Arsenal fans may not be too familiar with the League of Ireland side, but fear not! 90min thankfully have someone on their books who has followed domestic Irish football for the best part of the last 20 years...yes, that person is me.
So below are all the things that Gunners fans need to know about Dundalk:
The Manager - Filippo Giovagnoli
It's fair to say that Dundalk fans weren't best pleased when Filippo Giovagnoli took over as the club's interim manager in August - mainly because they didn't know who he was. No one did.
He wasn't exactly a big time professional footballer turned manager, considering the highest level he played at was Serie C with Rondinella Firenze - he played against Gabriel Batistuta once according to, well, himself - and his only managerial experience was as the technical director of an AC Milan's summer soccer camps in America, and a 'director of coaching' at the Metropolitan Oval Academy for six years (no we don't know what the hell that is either).
So yes, a bit of an unknown quantity to say the least.
Dundalk fans' scepticism around the appointment was then heightened even further when:
A) He rocked up wearing a flat cap in a press conference.
B) Ex-manager Vinny Perth, who was sacked after the Lilywhites' Champions League qualifying defeat Celje, stated that the club's chairman Bill Hulsizer interfered in his team selection.
To Dundalk fans everything about the appointment screamed: 'Giovagnoli is a pawn, Hulsizer will manage the team and that nobody will let him. It'll be a disaster.'
However, to everyone's surprise, that hasn't been the case. Instead, said 'nobody' Giovagnoli, despite having little to no experience, despite never setting foot in Ireland until he got the job, despite not even being able to stand on the touchline during European games because he doesn't have the adequate UEFA licenses, has done a pretty damn good job. As under Giovagnoli's guidance, Dundalk qualified for the Europa League group stages for only the second time in club history, and the third time in any Irish club's history (Shamrock Rovers achieved the feat in 2011).
Adopting a more conservative style of play and focusing more on tactical training than previous managers Stephen Kenny and Perth did, Giovagnoli and his assistant Giuseppe Rossi (no, not that one) have been a breath of fresh air at the club, as Chris Shields (Dundalk player) attests:
"Filippo and Giuseppe have come in and done excellently working with the players. They have put an arm around players when needed and a kick up the hole for other lads who needed it. We have become a good suit for each other, and it’s showing on the pitch now.”
The Captain - Brian Gartland
"“I can have a little chuckle that an aul fella like me will be living the fairytale of playing at a huge stadium like the Emirates.""- Brian Gartland
Brian Gartland looks a bit like a fridge, he plays a bit like Richard Dunne, and he is undoubtedly the best League of Ireland defender of the last decade.
Signed from Portadown for £0 in 2013, Gartland has been the defensive stalwart at the heart of a Lilywhites side that has won *ahem* five league titles, two FAI Cups, two league cups and two President's Cup. That's just the 11 trophies in seven years.
Despite all of this ^ success, Gartland came into Dundalk's 2020 European campaign with something to prove after a few uncharacteristic mistakes from the defender cost his side in their maiden Europa League group stage campaign:
“It was probably the lowest point of my career,” Gartland said (via the 42). “That’s something that I had never experienced. We were at the pinnacle of Irish football and there were levels of scrutiny - from the fans, the public and the media - that we never had before."
Now at the 'pinnacle of Irish football' again, expect the behemoth of a centre back to right the wrongs of 2016.
The Star Player - Michael Duffy
That's a pretty good goal, eh?
It's probably got you thinking 'who the hell is Michael Duffy and where did he get that thunderbastard of a right foot?'
Well Michael Duffy is a wee left midfielder from Derry and his favourite footballer of all time is Thierry Henry. He loved Henry so much as a child that he actually asked to use 'Thierry' as his confirmation name. Real love if I ever did see it.
The attacker burst onto the #GreatestLeagueInTheWorld scene with hometown club - the team this writer supports - Derry City, and impressed so much at the Brandywell that he earned a move to Celtic. After not getting his fair crack at the whip at Celtic, having been loaned out to Alloa and Dundee, Duffy returned to Ireland with Dundalk in 2017 and he's been one of the best, and most clutch, players in the league ever since.
'How clutch?' you ask.
The 2018 PFAI Players' Player of the Year is the difference maker in attack for Dundalk, and if he is given a sniff by the Arsenal defence on Thursday, he could cause the Gunners' defence a bit of a headache.
"“Thierry Henry was my idol when I was growing up. I asked for Thierry as my confirmation name. They said no at the start but the teacher came back two weeks later and said he was a saint and that I could have it!”"- Michael Duffy
Their League Form
Not too great to be honest. In fact, they actually relinquished their stranglehold on the SSE Airtricity League title on Monday night when Shamrock Rovers were crowned champions - it's a summer league, hence the October title win.
In the shortened league season (thanks to COVID), the Lilywhites have lost a whopping five of their 16 league games - they lost four of their 36 last season - and sit in third place in the league; a huge 13 points behind Rovers, who have two games in hand to boot.
That's pretty grim for a team that have dominated League of Ireland football for the best part of the last decade.
In their defence though, ever since it became abundantly clear that Rovers were going to run away with the league (when Rovers beat Dundalk 3-2 way back in February), the Lilywhites have basically thrown the league and solely focused on European football.
And when you consider the fact that the winner of the SSE Airtricity League gets €110,000 in prize money, and Dundalk's win over Kl alone earned them €3m, it is easy to see why the did that.
How They Line Up
Gary Rogers (GK): The oldest man in the world (he's 39), Rogers has been one of the best goalkeepers in Ireland for nearly 20 years.
Sean Gannon (RB): Having won seven league titles in last decade at three different clubs (five with Dundalk, one with Shamrock Rovers and one with Sligo Rovers), 29-year-old Gannon is a perennial winner, and bloody great athlete who is basically impossible to stop when he gets going on the right hand side - in Ireland at least.
Daniel Cleary (CB): You may have heard Cleary mentioned recently on Twitter after podcast clip of Tom Brewitt stating that he intentionally injured the defender while at Liverpool did the rounds. Well, while the sarky Brewitt is a free agent, Cleary is playing Europa League football. We're ok with that.
Brian Gartland (CB): Captain, leader, legend. Good luck to Arsenal at set pieces while this fridge of a man is on the pitch.
Darragh Leahy (LB): Club legend Dane Massey is back in contention following an injury so he may play, but the house money is on Leahy to start. The Ireland Under-21 international is one of the brightest young talents in the Airtricity League, and it seems like it's only a matter of time before an English club swoops for him.
Chris Shields (CM): 'Mr. Reliable' in the middle of the park, Shields has been a key man at Dundalk for the best part of the last decade. He's also a man for the big occasion, as accentuated by the fact that he scored the winning penalty in last season's league cup final (against Derry, woe is me). Expect him to absolutely clatter at least one Arsenal player on Thursday.
Greg Sloggett (CM): Following a fantastic season at Derry City, Sloggett was (sadly) nabbed by the Lilywhites in the off-season and has continued to improve week in, week out at Oriel Park. Expect Giovagnoli to throw on Steelstown Primary School alumni (my old primary school) Patrick McEleney if Dundalk are lacking an attacking threat in the middle of the park. Affectionately nicknamed 'Fats' (seriously, it's affectionate as far as I know), the midfielder is one of the most naturally gifted footballers Ireland has produced this decade.
Sean Murray (CM): Won Watford's Young Player of the Year award in 2016, but after a few fairly meh loan spells to Colchester United and co. and a short spell playing in Denmark, he's found himself back in Ireland. The most attacking of the midfield three, Murray loves a late dart into the box and is surprisingly good in the air for man his size. Think Tim Cahill meets Frank Lampard, only Irish and not as good as either of them.
John Mountney (RW): A key man under Kenny, Perch and now Giovagnoli, Mountney is a dependable threat down the right flank and has a telepathic understanding with Gannon.
Patrick Hoban (ST): Sean Maguire aside, there probably hasn't been a better striker in Ireland over the past five to 10 years. Had a failed spell in England with Oxford United, but has come back to the SSE Airtricity League as the same clinical forward every non-Dundalk fan had grown to hate in 2014. As Sophie Neary attests, if Jamie Vardy can score against Arsenal, then why can't Hoban?
Michael Duffy (LW): The main man. Stop Duffy and you stop Dundalk.
Yeah, Dundalk really do have a Patreon.
So if you like what you see on Thursday night, give them a couple of quid.