Assistant manager Ruaidhri Higgins is hoping to have more happy European memories when Dundalk travel to Riga next month.
The former Derry City midfielder played a starring role in the Candy Stripes’ Europa League encounter against Skonto Riga back in 2009.
Stephen Kenny’s side secured an impressive 1-1 draw in Riga with Higgins’ delightful cross picking out Tam McManus, who headed home the equaliser and Derry finished the job off at the Brandywell thanks to Kevin Deery’s second leg strike, before CSKA Sofia knocked them out in the third qualifying round.
However, that game in the Skonto Stadium a decade ago, which was nearly postponed at the last minute because of a horrendous downpour which even flooded both dressing rooms, is a tie which the Limavady man thoroughly enjoyed.
“Just before kick-off there was the most torrential rain I have ever seen in my life and I live in Ireland, so that’s saying something, but thankfully the game still went ahead,” he explained.
“To be honest it actually made for a brilliant game as it meant the pitch was soaked and it was slick. We actually played really good stuff and I think they went in front but we equalised through Tam McManus and we brought that result back to the Brandywell.
“In the second leg we managed to win 1-0 and go through and I think we were the better team over the two legs.”
Since then Skonto has amalgamated with Dundalk’s opponents but Higgins wants a similar outcome which would see the Lilywhites progressing to the next round of the Champions League.
“The two Riga clubs have merged together so Skonto Riga, who I would have played against, are gone, but Riga play in that stadium now and in their short time together they have been relatively successful. I think they have nine or 10 Latvian internationals, they have a Georgian and Serbian international, they are a very, very strong outfit,” he added.
“They took CSKA Sofia to penalties last year in the Europa League and Sofia finished one point behind Ludogorets at the top of the Bulgarian Championship, so it shows you how good Riga are. They are a very, very, good side and if we don’t prepare properly then we could be in trouble.
“But any game that we go into we try and make sure that we are well prepared and have our homework done, so hopefully that will be the case and hopefully it’s a similar outcome as the last time I was there in 2009 in a Derry City shirt.
“We got the job two done over the two legs and that first leg in Riga, is actually a game that I enjoyed and in fairness Riga was a lovely city.”
The ex-Coleraine man feels the current Dundalk squad, which has four ex-Derry players in it - Dean Jarvis, Michael Duffy, Patrick McEleney and Georgie Kelly - continue to come back each season with the same hunger and desire for success and the Co. Louth club are looking to make up for last year’s disappointing Europa League loss to AEK Larnaca.
“The ambition is to progress and try to do better than what we did last year,” he added.
“We are the champions of Ireland and we are representing the league and the country, so we want to make people at home proud of us as well and try to achieve as much as we can in Europe this year and have a real go at it."
It was only three years ago that Dundalk had a memorable Europa Lague run, which saw them become only the second Irish team to reach the Group Stages of a European competition and most of that squad remain at the club.
While Higgins rightfully praises that historic campaign, he wants to remind fans that the 2016 journey was a little bit easier.
“A lot of the players who are currently in the squad have had a taste of the group stages of the Europa League, so the players want more of that. Now I’m not saying we are going to get to the group stages of the Champions League, we’ll give it a go,” he said.
“The pathway to the groups stages is now a lot harder. I know the year Dundalk got to the group stages, which I’m not taking anything away from whatsoever as it was a phenomenal achievement, but they won two rounds against FH (Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar) from Iceland and Bate Borisov, which guaranteed them a place in the Europa League group stages and one game away from the Champions League group stage, but now you have to win four rounds to get into the group stages.
“But again we have to dream and be ambitious, so we’ll try and prepare to set-up to win every game.”
Prior to their first leg against Riga at Oriel Park on July 10th, the champions, like every side in the Premier Division, have a tough league schedule just after the mid-season break.
“We have got experience of being involved in the business end of the season for the last five or six years, but it’s really important that we don’t take our eye off the ball domestically because we have a heavy schedule when we come back from the break,” he confirmed.
“We have Shamrock Rovers on the Friday at Tallaght, then Waterford at home on the Monday and then Derry at the Brandywell the following Friday before the European game and if we take our eye of the ball domestically then we could do damage to ourselves and we don’t intend to do that. That’s a huge week for us as there’s nine points available and we’ll do everything we can to put ourselves in a really strong position.
“We have travelled to Spain to do five days training to prepare ourselves for the next stage of the season and we’ll be using that squad more and more over the next few weeks when we come back. We have to do that anyway as we have had quite a few long term injuries to key players so we have had a lot to deal with and to be in the position we are in at the minute is testament to the squad and everyone at the club. It wasn’t an easy period but we have got through it.
“But the business end of the season has yet to come and we’ll try to make the most of that week leading up to the European game to get points on the board. You have to do your business right or you’ll get turned over as simple as that.”
To be fair to Vinny Perth’s side they currently sit five points clear of Shamrock Rovers at the top of the table having won 11 of their last 12 league games.
“Momentum is with us at the minute. We have won 34 points from a possible 36 points and we are picking up wins, but we need to keep that going to give us momentum going into Europe,” added Higgins.
“We are ambitious, the players are ambitious, the owners are ambitious, so it’s important that we try to fulfil that ambition and try to achieve things. But that’s the beauty about this group of players in fairness to them, the hunger in the squad is second to none.
“It’s easy for people to say ‘oh yous have a good squad of players’, but to do it year in year out is very difficult and every year these players keep re-motivating themselves and getting themselves going with a bit of help from us. They are an absolutely unbelievable group of players to work with and the best I have ever seen in this country.”