Paul Doolin is a name well known to Drogheda United fans. He arrived from UCD in September of 2003 and managed the Drogs for five years during a time of unprecedented success for the Co. Louth club. He instituted full-time professionalism in 2004 and took them to their first FAI Cup win in 2005, which was followed up by two Setanta Cup triumphs and the club’s first, and only, league title in 2007. Doolin also led the Drogs into three successive European campaigns that saw memorable contests with Helsingborgs and Dynamo Kiev. In this, the first of two installments, he talks in detail about Drogheda’s European adventures…
“It was a fantastic time. Winning the FAI Cup allowed us to enter the Europa League, as it’s called now, and everyone was looking forward to it, including myself. It was my first time to coach a team playing in Europe and I’ve always felt that, with European football, whether that’s club competitions or international competitions, it’s not the same as your domestic game. A lot depends on who you draw, to be honest, but I think there’s a lot more emphasis on tactics in European football. So it was a challenging experience both for myself and the players but it was one we managed to not do badly in at all.”
The draw for Drogheda’s first ever European tie was broadcast to the team bus on the way to an away fixture in what was then the Eircom League and it sent Doolin and his team to Scandinavia.
“We got HJK Helsinki. We didn’t really know a lot about them but they had been in the group stages of the Champion’s League maybe a year or two previously so they had a good pedigree. We played them away first, in Helsinki, and we had one up on them because we had Sami Ristilla with us at the time who is from Finland. We drew one each out there, Shane Robinson scored a fantastic goal and then in Dalymount it was a great atmosphere. For all the European games I think the atmosphere was great. We conceded a goal in the first half but we managed to score three between the second half and extra time and it got us through.
“Considering it was the club’s first venture into Europe in a long time, to get through the first phase at the first time of asking was brilliant. And the team were brilliant. We were a very strong team in terms of physical condition and it was a good squad of players.
“We went to Norway then to play IK Start who were managed by Stig Inge Byornebye, the ex-Liverpool player. It’s a fantastic part of Norway, I have to say, a beautiful place called Kristiansand. We lost 1-0 [but] probably could have drawn 1-1. We had a great chance late on, I think it was Shane Barrett that may have had it. And again in the second leg in Dalymount, we were outstanding. A goal down [and] not having scored away from home, doesn’t leave you any margins for error [but] we played well and in the second half we managed to get a goal from Eamon Zayed. It went to extra time, and I have to say we were by far the better side on the night. It was an extraordinary penalty shootout, so many penalties before they managed to win (23). Graham Gartland missed his but, sure, that’s penalty shootouts. You’ve seen the history of them in World Cups [and] Champion’s Leagues, so that can happen.”
Drogheda returned to Europe the following year when they were drawn against San Marino side, SP Libertas. It was seen as a relatively easy draw but the competition’s lowest ranked side gave Doolin’s men a bit of a fright during the first leg in the Stadio Olimpico in Serravalle.
“We missed a lot of chances that night, an awful lot of chances. Then we did score one but we managed to concede one. I always felt that we’d get through in the home leg and we got two goals from Paul Keegan and another one from Stuey Byrne. In Dalymount, again, the atmosphere for the European games was excellent and we got through 4-1. It was good for Libertas; they got their draw and got a bit of credit, which they deserved, and we managed to get through which was great.”
Next up for the Drogs was a meeting with Swedish aristocrats Helsingborgs who were then captained by former Celtic, Barcelona and Manchester United star, Henrik Larsson.
“The big attraction that night was Henrik Larsson… and they were a good side. We managed to draw with them in Dalymount. We went behind and then equalised through Eamon Zayed in the second half. Probably, at that time, they were the strongest team [we had faced] and then, of course, in the second leg we didn’t really perform well. Anybody, even myself.
“So they finished up winning 3-0 and, I suppose, it was probably a bit of an experience that we hadn’t had. The team was getting stronger though, they had been building and building, and then that year was the year that we won the League, so we had been getting better. But still, [it was] that little step into, let’s say, the better side of the European game. So it was back to the drawing board to try and qualify again.”
Drogheda did qualify again, this time as League champions having won their first title under Doolin at the end of the 2007 season. So, in the summer of 2008, the club took their bow in the continent’s premier club competition, the Champions League. In the second installment of his recollections, Paul talks in detail about his experiences of taking Drogheda to a new level of club competition and about the challenges of facing Dynamo Kiev, one of the genuine aristocrats of European football.