DUN STEP BEYOND; Wonderful Whites one round from Champions League group stage.
IT began as a fairytale but now Dundalk are living the dream with the Lilywhites just 180 minutes from the Champions League proper.
And they head into the play-off round safe in the knowledge they have a Europa League group stage adventure to fall back on whatever happens.
Red-hot David McMillan's double floored group stage regulars BATE Borisov at a pulsating Tallaght Stadium last night, with Robbie Benson slamming home the insurance goal at the death amid sensational scenes.
McMillan became the league's all-time leading scorer in Europe's premier club competition, bringing his haul to six - five of them this season alone - to overtake Jason Byrne and Glen Crowe.
And any concerns of a killer late goal from BATE - as it would have been enough to send them through - evaporated with Benson's moment of brilliance.
It sparked outright pandemonium and Dundalk's bench machine-gunned itself onto the pitch; players, management and backroom staff racing up the touchline like bullets.
Stephen Kenny, soaked to the bone from a brutal downpour, didn't know what to do! He threatened to lose himself in the moment, but saved it until the final whistle when he and, well, everyone around him went berserk.
And with it all comes untold riches as Dundalk - watched here by Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill - have banked a phenomenal [euro]5.6million for their night's work.
They will bank more on the back of it, too, as the Lilywhites emulate the Shelbourne team of 2004 by reaching the Champions League play-off, and the Shamrock Rovers team of 2011 who reached the Europa League group stage.
But what a electrifying performance. This wasn't squeaking over the line stuff. Dundalk put a ropey opening 40 minutes behind them to absolutely batter a BATE side that buckled under pressure.
Dundalk, buoyed by McMillan's opener two minutes before the break, bossed every kick of the second-half and BATE had no stomach for the fight.
For a team with a [euro]15 million wage bill per year, the chips were down but the visitors didn't want to know and were suffocated under relentless, driving pressure from the men in black shirts.
It's the manner of the victory that will please Kenny so much. They never panicked on the back of that sluggish start and came roaring back. And while McMillan will get the headlines, substitute Patrick McEleney's influence on proceeding cannot be understated.
His vision, his cunning and his silky skills turned this tie on its head.
And with it, Dundalk have guaranteed European football up until Christmas at least. But Kenny won't accept the Europa League consolation.
He and his players are already eyeing Friday's Champions League draw in Switzerland, knowing they are within touching distance of the group stages.
No Irish team has got there before but who would bet against this team, considering the momentum they have behind them, never mind the talent.
But it wasn't always plain sailing. Early on, Dundalk had a good deal more of the ball than they had in Belarus last week, but struggled to maximise their return.
Again, they coughed up balls all too cheaply and BATE couldn't believe their luck as Dundalk gift-wrapped balls. That said, clear cut chances were few and far between.
Kenny's message in the build up was to 'stay in the game for as long as possible' but boy were they living on the edge until McMillan's fine intervention before the break. Horgan's electric runs sparked the large crowd. He looked a threat but it was frustrating how little time he got on the ball.
But it's the mark of the man that, despite being frozen out for so long he remained composed to make the difference when it was needed the most.
Two minutes before the break, McEleney found Horgan and the winger turned two defenders with gorgeous feet, clipping a ball to the back post for McMillan to crash a header home off the post.
But those in attendance had seen nothing yet!
BATE ought to have ripped into Kenny's men but they were completely rattled.
And McMillan bagged his second of the night amid incredible scenes.
McEleney caused mayhem when he swaggered into the box and unleashing stepovers galore.
His cross found Dane Massey in space and he returned the ball with interest for McMillan to head home from close range.
Dundalk continued to dominate thereafter and BATE were well and truly on the ropes as Benson swept through to hammer the final nail into the coffin.
What a night but in truth the adventure is only starting.
ON ROAD TO GLORY
David McMillan opens the scoring in Tallaght last night and, inset, reels away in delight
PLEASURE AND PAIN Stephen Kenny
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Aug 3, 2016|
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