Champions League: Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny & captain Stephen O'Donnell's dream

From crowds in the hundreds to league titles, Dundalk have enjoyed a turnaround under Stephen Kenny

"It's David v Goliath, it's Rocky. This club has come from nowhere."

Dundalk FC captain Stephen O'Donnell is explaining how the Irish side went from playing before a crowd of 226 to the Champions League play-off round.

Just four years after nearly going bust, they faced Polish champions Legia Warsaw in front of more than 30,000 fans at the national stadium in Dublin.

After losing 2-0, a place for the League of Ireland club in the group stages looks remote but they are still guaranteed a place in the Europa League group stages.

Dundalk's Oriel Park home
Oriel Park - the home of Dundalk, who are nicknamed the Lilywhites

Back from the brink - an amazing turnaround

Dundalk: Semi-rural town - population 39,000.

Warsaw: National capital - ground capacity 32,000

The Irish club that nearly went out of business with part-time players is facing a Polish side that crushed Celtic 6-1 on aggregate two years ago.

Dundalk have already banked more than £4m for their European exploits and will earn more as their European adventure continues.

They are here thanks to a stunning 3-1 aggregate win over Belarusian champions BATE Borisov. After the incredible 3-0 second-leg victory, Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill went into the dressing room and praised the players.

Kenny has been been told Dundalk are the lowest-ranked team to make it to the play-off tie for the group stage, but he is not fazed.

Fans with a 'Save Our Club' banner
Supporters with buckets asked for donations as they helped save the club

"This is beyond what we could have dreamed of," he tells BBC Sport.

"We have come from nowhere. We are a club that has 3,000 seats in our ground. Already it's been special and it's captured the imagination nationally.

"This has greater implications than our club. We could change football here, it could be a game changer."

In 2012, Dundalk was sinking in a world of money troubles. Fans had a 'Save Our Club' campaign to raise funds and Dundalk only stayed in the top division because another club, Monaghan, did go out of business.

Then local businessmen Paul Brown and Andy Connolly took over, recruited Kenny, and saw the club come second in 2013, become champions in 2014 and win the double last season.

Stephen Kenny
Kenny previously managed Bohemians, Longford Town, Derry City, Dunfermline Athletic and Shamrock Rovers

What's the recovery down to?

The limelight-shy owners run Fastfix, a company that supplies nuts, bolts and screws. Nailing down 44-year-old Kenny to a contract was their key move.

They did not advertise the vacancy, instead driving to his house and offering him the job without an interview.

"I was impressed with their honesty. They are genuine fans who love the club," says the Dubliner. "I knew traditionally they had strong support and felt we could reignite interest."

He points to "a culture of desire to get better" among the players.

"It is evident in the rate of improvement. As a team there's a selflessness, a genuine spirit there," he says.

His assistant Vinny Perth helps with recruitment, a strength and conditioning coach - Graham Byrne - briefs the players on nutrition.

He talks of the players' character, lists the importance of practice and improving every aspect of their game - passing, finishing, crossing…

"There's a humility and inner confidence within the group. They want to work hard for each other."

O'Donnell, 30, points to the "camaraderie" - there are "no real bad eggs" in the squad.

"It's something the manager looks at, he does background checks before you sign," he adds.

For the manager who won the League of Ireland title with Bohemians in 2002-03, and led a Derry side to a draw against Paris St-Germain in 2006, this is crucial.

"Signing players with good characters and attitudes is important," he says.

"We work with a small background team but clear demarcation. The roles are very specific."

Captain Stephen O'Donnell
Dundalk captain Stephen O'Donnell started his career at Arsenal as a youth

What's the set-up like?

"Four or five of the lads are working during the day so we train during the evenings," says O'Donnell.

Centre-half Andy Boyle sells meat, his defensive partner Brian Gartland is a basketball coach. David McMillan, one of the highest scorers in the Champions League qualifying, is a part-time architect.

You can count the club staff on your hands. Co-owner Andy's brother Martin is the general manager, his wife Alison runs the club shop on a voluntary basis with help from their children, and their niece Amy works part-time in the bar.

The "full-time" players get paid 40 weeks of the year. They'll earn in a year what many Champions League players could reap in days.

"We probably have the smallest budget compared with the millions elsewhere - it's David v Goliath, it's Rocky. We want the whole country behind us," says O'Donnell.

Dundalk fans at the club's Oriel Park ground
Dundalk fans at the club's Oriel Park ground

The ultimate underdogs?

It has been a year of footballing surprises with Premier League success for Leicester and Wales reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2016.

"It's been the year of the underdog," says O'Donnell, the easy-going midfielder and captain.

"Leicester City winning the league was the biggest sporting surprise since I've been alive. Dundalk beating BATE Borisov was another one. It shows what can happen with hard work."

Dundalk's spirit in a narrow Europa League defeat by Hajduk Split two years ago was a sign of things to come.

"This isn't a one-off situation, we have been building towards this," says Kenny.

"Other clubs will have players that played in the Euros. We have none. But we have a lot of young Irish players who have really excelled."

Dundalk the movie?

Dundalk story is like a Rocky movie, says captain Stephen O'Donnell
A story as unlikely as Rocky - can Dundalk reach the Champions League?

O'Donnell has his own fairytale. This is the most successful time for a player who joined Arsenal as a schoolboy 15 years ago when Arsene Wenger was the manager and the club had a strong set of Irish coaches including Pat Rice and Liam Brady.

"I was there at the time of the Invincibles. I didn't think there was much chance of breaking into that first team. It was a bit of a closed shop," he chuckles, referring to the 2003-04 Premier League title-winning side who were unbeaten in the top flight that season.

What brought him to Dundalk?

"When Stephen rang me, I had no motivation for going - that's the truth. I wouldn't have chosen Dundalk, who were after having a disastrous time," the 30-year-old says.

"It was always a football town but had a bad couple of years. In 2012, the crowds were in the hundreds and now we are averaging well over 3,000.

"You see little kids running round with Dundalk jerseys rather than Man United or Arsenal. They have their own heroes at Oriel Park now."

The owners' recruitment of Kenny was "probably the best decision ever made," he says.

"He had a blank canvas and built a new squad. For all we knew, we would be in a relegation dogfight. If you wrote a book or movie, you would say it's not possible, it's unbelievable."

So who would play the skipper in a film?

"I'd like to say Brad Pitt," he laughs. "I suppose Sean Penn - he's a bit older."

O'Donnell might not have made it this far, as his career nearly ended two years ago.

"I was 27 and in the April, banjaxed my knee. The specialist said I would be out for more than a year and it was debatable if I'd play again," he recalls.

He sought a second opinion from top knee surgeon Ray Moran, the brother of former Republic of Ireland and Manchester United defender Kevin.

"He did a scan and said it was not a showstopper. I was back within five-and-a-half months," he adds.

His comeback game was the victorious title decider against Cork. He scored the opener. Of course he did. And Dundalk were on the march.

"It was a fairytale. The whole journey has been a fairytale."

Dundalk's players after winning the league title in 2014
Dundalk's players after winning the league title in 2014

What of the future?

At Shamrock Rovers, O'Donnell played under Michael O'Neill who has gone on to lead Northern Ireland to Euro 2016.

How does he compare to Kenny?

"They are both really good, but different. Michael is tactically very astute.

"Stephen's strength is his man-management skills and giving players massive confidence. He's built this club up from the ashes. The club was on its knees. It's the best job ever done in Irish football."

So, if, if, Dundalk were to turn the tie around and go through, who's the ideal opponent?

"We have a long way to go and need a lot of luck," says O'Donnell.

"Me personally, it would have to be Barcelona at the Nou Camp. I've always liked them and I'd probably have the chance to say I played against that attacking trio of [Lionel] Messi, Neymar and [Luis] Suarez."

Dundalk supporters

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