Who are Dundalk, Arsenal's first opponents from Republic of Ireland?

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Few people had heard of Dundalk manager Filippo Giovagnoli and assistant Giuseppe Rossi (pictured arriving for a league game with Shamrock Rovers) when they were appointed in August

Arsenal will face a side from the Republic of Ireland in a competitive game for the first time on Thursday.

But how did Dundalk FC, a team managed by an unknown Italian who does not yet have a Uefa Pro Licence, manage to reach the Europa League group stages alongside the Gunners, Rapid Vienna and Molde?

They have done so even though they are struggling domestically.

“Dundalk have gone from being the dominant club in the country to a European run papering over the cracks,” said Irish Independent football correspondent Daniel McDonnell, who is from the area.

“But the owners have now achieved their aim of bringing the club back to the group stages and they got there via an unknown manager they sprung as a rabbit from the hat.”

This is the second time the Lilywhites have qualified for the Europa League in five years.

After reaching the 2016 Europa League group stages, picking up four points in their opening two games before losing the remaining four, and winning three domestic titles in a row under Stephen Kenny, Dundalk looked set to rule Irish football for years.

But they have failed to win the title in two of the following four seasons, including this season – and with two games still to go, a Europa Conference League place for next year is still uncertain (no Irish teams will automatically enter Europa League qualifying next year).

In 2018 Dundalk were taken over by Peak6 Sports – who also owned 25% of Bournemouth from 2015 to 2019.

The US investment firm wanted to take over the running of the Aviva Stadium in Dublin and play 10 home games a season at the national stadium, which is more than 50 miles away from Dundalk.

They were prepared to field an under-19 team in an important league game, because they wanted the first team to play a friendly with Celtic, and chairman Bill Hulsizer reportedly wanted a phone line installed on the bench so he could offer his opinion during games.

“Rather than being a faceless absentee landlord, they’ve gone in another direction,” said journalist McDonnell, who has written in depth about Dundalk’s ownership.external-link

“Bill Hulsizer – the father of Peak6’s billionaire co-founder Matt – doesn’t work for the company, yet is now the voice of the ownership and his interviews continue to raise questions about the level of knowledge of football and the realities of the game here.”

Their highest profile moment though, has been the surprise appointment of Filippo Giovagnoli as interim head coach in August.

If you have not heard of the 49-year-old, that is understandable. The former Serie C player and AC Milan summer camp organiser was director of coaching at New York’s Metropolitan Oval Academy when he got the call from Dundalk.

This is the first time he has been a manager of a senior team.

He is not short of a soundbite either. He referred to his job as a “kamikaze mission” when he replaced Vinny Perth, who was sacked after their Champions League qualifying exit.

His assistant is long-time associate Giuseppe Rossi (not the former Manchester United player).

Their appointment was met by understandable scepticism – Dundalk’s rivals revelled in the news – but there can be little doubt about the job they have done.

The Italian duo have led them past Inter Escaldes of Andorra, Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova (on penalties) and Faroese side KI in three one-legged qualifying rounds.

Reaching this stage has guaranteed the club about 3m euros (£2.7m). “I am the proof that anything is possible in life,” Giovagnoli said afterwards.

They led Molde in the first group game at Dublin’s Tallaght Stadium but lost 2-1 – a result which cost them roughly another £500,000.

Dundalk celebrate
Former Watford player Sean Murray gave Dundalk the lead in their opening group game against Molde but they went on to lose 2-1. He has scored three of their six European goals this season

McDonnell said: “I think they are popular now although a couple of disappointing league results have checked some of the positivity.

“Filippo and Giuseppe came in from the start, got the players on board early, proved they knew their stuff on the training ground, and helped to lift the spirits of a dressing room that was in a bad place with their positive approach.

“They have won a lot of people over; and I think some people who were very harsh about their appointment now feel a bit embarrassed about that.”

But for all that, Arsenal are not likely to meet strong opposition on Thursday at Emirates Stadium.

“Unfortunately, this current Dundalk side is struggling to even stand out in the League of Ireland,” said McDonnell.

Dundalk have conceded 20 goals in 16 league games – more than in last year’s 36-game campaign – and have only won three of 11 top-flight games since the restart.

Their top scorer, Pat Hoban – who had forgettable spells with Oxford, Stevenage, Grimsby and Mansfield – has scored nine goals. Nobody else has managed more than four.

“The budget is substantially bigger than what it was in 2016, but that team was one of the best club sides that Ireland have ever seen,” said McDonnell.

“The Dundalk of 2020 have underperformed massively. They lack the spark and energy of that 2016 side. The fear is they don’t really have the pace and invention to trouble teams at group-stage level.”



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