McGrath sets sights on Qarabag
After last week’s dramatic events in Riga, Dundalk FC were back on the training ground this weekend ahead of Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League second qualifying round first leg tie with Azerbaijani champions Qarabag.
Having flown back from Latvia straight after the penalty-shootout win over Riga FC at Skonto Stadium, Vinny Perth’s squad had a recovery session on Thursday and a day off on Friday, before getting back to it this weekend with two big days’ training.
Dundalk midfielder Jamie McGrath spoke to dundalkfc.com at today’s training session at Oriel Park and he said the squad are doing their usual meticulous preparation to ready themselves for the challenge of Qarabag.
“We had a good session yesterday and we’re ready to go again today. We’ve a busy day ahead of us, with the video and gym, so it will be the same again today. We analysed them yesterday and we’re going to have a good look at them again today.
“They look like a quality side but you probably don’t get a proper feel until you play them. Stevie O’Donnell’s been out there a few times now and the work the lads have done in preparing us so we should be well equipped.”
Whilst the tie with Qarabag was reached in the most dramatic of circumstances, with a nailbiting penalty shootout, for 210 minutes before that Dundalk and Riga fought out a goal-less stalemate.
Despite not being at their fluent best, the Lilywhites came closest to scoring in both legs, and McGrath thinks the performance over the whole tie was one his side can take confidence from.
“I thought we played very good over two legs and definitely dominated possession,” said the 22-year-old. “I think first leg we had 59% possession and second leg I think we had 54%, away from home, which is something that Irish teams aren’t really known for in Europe.
“We could probably have created a few more chances or maybe took a few more. We were very happy with how we did, but I think we can go up another gear as well.”
After Sean Hoare’s decisive penalty sent Dundalk through, the emotion of the dramatic shootout spilled out both on and off the pitch, leading to memorable scenes between the players, management and the travelling Lilywhites supporters.
Now McGrath hopes that wave of emotion that filled the air can be used to spur the team on at Oriel Park on Wednesday night.
“The travelling fans were unbelievable,” said the Athboy native. “It almost felt like a home game at times. To see that number of fans travelling out there was just surreal.
“It’s a great way to win a match. It’s a terrible way to lose it, but they are the fine margins. Gary [Rogers] has worked wonders in the shootout and we had chances to win it. Their keeper had a good record from peno shootouts as well.
“We’re just chuffed to get through and it can only give us another reason to kick on now and give us more confidence going into the next tie.”
The penalty shootout in Riga will live long in the memory, with the first six spot-kicks finding the net before the next four were missed, including a chance for Georgie Kelly to claim victory, only to see Riga keeper Roberts Ozols to parry it away.
Dennis Rakels then gave Riga the lead, which meant McGrath had what an American sports fan – and Ruadhri Higgins – would call the ‘clutch’ penalty – score or Dundalk were out. Of course, McGrath duly slotted it home and the rest is history, but how did it feel stepping it to take the kick with everything on the line?
“I was going to kill Georgie when he missed!” he says laughing.
“We were second so if I missed it was over, and there was a bit of a stall before my peno as well. I don’t really know why, something to do with the team sheet, but I was confident that I’d score and luckily enough I did.
“Obviously then Gary [Rogers] went on again to save and Sean [Hoare] put us through, so it was a great night, so it was.”
You can listen to the full interview on Dundalk FC’s Soundcloud page, below.