In the second installment of his European recollections, former Drogheda United manager Paul Doolin talks about the 2008 season when he led his side into the Champions League for the first time. As newly crowned Champions of the League of Ireland his players had already broken new ground for Drogheda, but further challenges awaited on the European stage. He begins with a reminder of the scale of the task that lay ahead of them…
“You’ve got to take into account”, he says “we were then coming through from the Europa League into the Champions League and we were now facing the best team from each country. We managed to draw Levadia Tallinn who, I wouldn’t say were the easiest draw. They had beaten Bohs previously and were another good side. The Drogheda supporters probably felt they were in dream-land because over three years they had twelve [European] games in total and no Irish team had managed before or since to win both home and away in the Champions League.
“I remember at the press conference prior to the game in Dublin their coach was asked what he thought about Drogheda and his answer was, ‘they’re certainly not like a British Isles team’, which I thought was a smashing compliment to get because a lot of people wouldn’t really give the team the credit they deserved for the way they played. ‘They’re different’, he said, and we were. We played some very, very good football.
“We went one down. And, let’s say, the natives weren’t happy. [There was] the usual cliche of ‘put two strikers on’ but we managed to come out in the second half and score a fantastic goal from Ollie Cahill, a great header, and then we went on to get the second goal late in the second half. So that set us up. You’d probably say it’s not really secure, they had an away goal and in Europe it’s not easy away from home… [but] we managed an outstanding performance [and] Graham (Gartland) managed to score from a free kick. It was a fantastic result.”
This brought Drogheda to the foothills of what would arguably become the club’s most memorable European encounter. “We knew who we’d be playing prior to Levadia, the winners had already drawn Dynamo Kiev”, said Doolin, “and they don’t come much bigger than that.
“The coach of Kiev wasn’t really happy with the stadium… but the pitch was perfect and it was great that Bohs allowed us to use Dalymount because we had sort of called it our home in European games and we had adjusted well to playing there. They had just signed a player called Vukojevic, a Croatian, for six million quid. So that’ll tell you [the difference]… for one player! They were a decent team, they had a lot of internationals, and we went a goal down.
“Maybe the players were a little bit stand-offish, a little bit too respectful, which is fine, you have to do that as well, but maybe we were a little bit hesitant in doing the things we would normally do. To be honest we wanted to keep ourselves in the game… you want to try and progress, even though it was Dynamo Kiev… [and] in the second half we played a bit better.
“We scored through Adam Hughes and we probably had the better of the game in the second half… but, unfortunately we conceded from a corner. John Carroll, my assistant at the time, had gone from Tallinn to see Dynamo Kiev. They had a league game in Dnipropetrovsk, and the same thing happened in that game. I remember saying, if there’s a corner from this side, watch the second ball because he Aliyev is likely to get on to it and strike on goal, and that’s exactly what happened.
“Actually, our goalkeeper, Jamie Ewings, a Scottish lad, was fantastic that night. The Kiev management staff and the journalists, called him ‘Spiderman’. He was very good. He only just came in that pre-season and he was a very good goalkeeper, did really well for us.
“When you’re going to the Ukraine you would fear the weather. I had been there previously with Shels and we played a team called Tavriya Simferopol down in Odessa and the heat there was ferocious. But when the game came around it was a cool evening and it was raining a bit as well, so that helped us. The game started and Aliyev scored a very good goal early on from the edge of the box. It would have been easy for us to collapse but I had a great group of players and it was about the team all the time. We managed to get an equalising penalty through Shane Robinson and it was one all at half time.
“In the second half they managed to get a penalty and Milevsky scored it. I Have to say, throughout those ninety minutes, it was probably one of the best performances that any Irish team have ever given. To get ourselves back into that game at two-all and it looked – and people might laugh at this – but we were the stronger team that particular night. We were still going, right up to the ninety-somethingth minute when we had those two chances. The one that Shane Robinson had, that hit the post and just rolled across the line… [and] Adam Hughes had a chance before Shane, the one that dropped in the box and he put it over the bar. But to manage to get the equaliser and to go two-all with them at home… it was a fantastic performance and I think it’s one of my highlights, whether in club football, european football, even international football.”
Finally, Doolin offers a vote of confidence to the present generation of Drogheda players.
“I think any club, any coach, any player, always wants to play in Europe, no matter who it is. And the fact that Drogheda have managed to do that by finishing second is great for them. I’m sure they’re waiting to see who they get and I’m sure, whoever they get, they’ll do well. It’s a different ball game and a different way of playing and I’m sure they’ll be looking forward to it.”