The Dundalk dressing-room that encountered Arsenal twice during the surreal and soulless Covid-enforced closed doors era always knew that those Europa League games would be remembered as a snapshot of a different time.
It’s an accurate statement which has now taken on a double meaning.
They didn’t know it then but that group can now say they encountered Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal in the period before they emerged from the wilderness.
The prestige of those games, diminished by the empty stadiums, centred around the history of the opposition and the environment they inhabited rather than the star quality of the footballers they encountered.
With fringe operators given a chance to shine in those 2020 group stage fixtures, it would be a stretch to say that the Irish team were awestruck when they scanned team-sheets.
Arsenal’s ascent to the top of the Premier League has put a fresh slant on the memories.
Shane Keegan, who was listed as manager for that Dundalk run even though Italian Filippo Giovagnoli was the real gaffer (a reflection of the chaos in Louth around that time), looks at the body language of Mikel Arteta parading the sideline now as an example of how far Arsenal have come in just over two years.
The Dundalk camp had picked up the sense that Arteta was on borrowed time, especially for the Dublin leg in December 2020, a trip that followed a North London derby loss to Tottenham.
“He looked like a dead man walking,” reflects Keegan, now the Cobh Ramblers boss “They went 2-0 up in the second game but Jordan Flores got a goal back. We felt that if we’d got a draw out of the game, he could have been gone. He looked like a fella with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and there was an edgy atmosphere around him.
“Now, he’s lepping and jumping around the place, emboldened. We didn’t see that side of him at all.”
The only real time the withdrawn Arteta interacted with the opponents was a comment in the tunnel in the away game telling the Dundalk staff that their No 10 Patrick McEleney, the Derryman whose talent is obvious to every football eye, was a good player. A judge, clearly.
Every member of the Irish party carries their own individual memories, but they are uniformly positive.
Arsenal rolling out the welcome mat in the October stands out, laying on a full spread for their visitors after the game. Kieran Tierney, a second-half sub and former team-mate of then Dundalk winger Michael Duffy, came in with three jerseys for different players that had asked to swap. Chris Shields recalls how chatty the opponents were on the pitch, without a trace of attitude.
“They weren’t as arrogant as I thought they might be,” says Shields, now with Linfield. “You’d come across that a bit in Europe, we had some Eastern European sides giving us lip and calling us s**t. Slovan Bratislava would have been like that. BATE Borisov had a bit of that to an extent.
“I remember marking Calum Chambers for a corner at the Aviva and he was asking what Dublin was like and would it have been full if crowds were allowed in. (Mohamed) Elneny scored a worldie in that game and Joe Willock turned to me after and said he’d no idea how he’d done that, it had never happened before. Look, maybe they were friendly enough because it was an easier game for them but they were decent.”
Naturally, the players held their own debrief about the level of what they’d faced. Keegan remembers Shields coming into the dressing-room in the Emirates and joking that he was giving his Ballon d’Or vote to Reiss Nelson, the winger who wowed the Dundalk players with his technique and trickery but remains on the periphery.
“He had our boys twisted like a pretzel,” Shields laughs. “I still talk about it with lads now, how there’s different levels. He looked like a world-beater against us but it’s different at Premier League level. Now, you could see some of them were playing in second gear. I remember Granit Xhaka was playing in defence and he strolled through the game.”
Keegan chuckles at that memory. “I remember we were saying that’s not his position, there might be a weakness. Sure he ended up playing with a cigar in his mouth, basically.”
Xhaka is to the fore in Arsenal’s title charge now. Emile Smith Rowe, who impressed in the Lansdowne match, is working his way back in although the star English turn is clearly Bukayo Saka, an unused sub in both Dundalk matches. Others who featured are on the edges or have moved elsewhere either on loan or permanently.
One that made a big impression was Willock, a contender for honours in Newcastle colours now. “I thought he was their best player,” declares Dundalk centre-half Andy Boyle. Keegan and Shields both reference his quality too.
What’s striking is the instinctive response of those canvassed is to name players other than the Arsenal man who broke the deadlock in both matches and is now vital to their league winning prospects. Eddie Nketiah didn’t really get them talking, a fact that is in keeping with a sudden rise that has surprised Arsenal obsessives as much as anyone else.
Gabriel Jesus’s injury was flagged as the possible death knell for Arsenal’s title hopes. They also missed out on wide attacker Mykhailo Mudryk who, bizarrely enough, almost joined Dundalk on loan when Giovagnoli was in charge.
It’s Nketiah, however, who has risen to the challenge, scoring six goals since the World Cup and shouldering responsibility by leading the line.
Back in 2011, a young Harry Kane scored his first goal for Spurs in a Europa League dead rubber with Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght, his subsequent exploits turning that into a much more significant moment than it felt at the time.
Dundalk’s class of 2020 are now beginning to wonder if their dalliance with Nketiah will be elevated with the passing of time.
He was 21 when they met, and had been around the block for a few years. His goals against Dundalk comprised of two of the six he delivered across a season where he made 29 appearances. Even the ultimate underdogs reckoned he had a ceiling.
“I would have been doing the opposition analysis,” recalls Keegan. “I did put together a compilation of his goals for the centre-halves and Gary Rogers in terms of his movement. But one of my slides would be their three main threats and I don’t think I had him on it even if he was their main striker for those matches.
“I had picked out Nelson and Nicolas Pepe (the £72m man who didn’t impress) and I think the third one didn’t end up starting. I’ll be honest, I can’t fully remember the goals he scored now. I think it was getting onto scraps.”
Boyle remembers them clearly. “Poxy” is a word that springs to mind. The Emirates goal came from a fumbled corner and a scramble, a painful concession after 42 minutes of successfully parking the bus.
In Ballsbridge, Nketiah put pressure on Boyle to block down a clearance and clip over Rogers with aplomb, a finish that now has a familiar look.
“The one thing I remember is that he pressed well, which I found to my detriment,” smiles Boyle.
“He was lively, we knew he’d been on loan before at Leeds without setting the world alight. His movement was good, he was sharp. He was more off your shoulder, that type of player, but it looks like his link-up play has really improved now.”
“With Nketiah, we all had the same thought, he was just a poacher, an opportunist,” continues Shields. “His only real game-time was coming in the Europa League and he was scoring. But I don’t remember his movement all that well, from what I recall he was quite central, he was closer to the centre-halves, I don’t remember him dropping into midfield and turning.
“He didn’t look as dangerous but you could see he was working hard, trying to make the best of his opportunities. There was no moaning out of him. You’re happy for lads like that.”
“You could see there was something there,” stresses Boyle. “But did I ever expect him to be a No 9 with a side that could be a Premier League winner? I wouldn’t have said so but hats off to him. It’s been a massive turnaround.”
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