When the group stage draw for the 2020 UEFA Europa League edition was made on Friday afternoon, October 2 in Nyon, it piqued the interest of one man in particular residing in neighbouring Austria.
This was not anyone associated with SK Rapid Wien, the Austrian Bundesliga side who would make up one quart of a group containing the then reigning champions of Norway and Ireland, as well as a Premier League giant. Instead, it was a 25-year-old plying his trade in the lower leagues behind Austria’s top tier – a world away from Red Bull Salzburg, LASK Linz and SK Rapid.
Manuel Kaguako will be a name familiar to some, but certainly not all, Dundalk fans. Completists will recall his name from the teamsheets of a handful of league and cup fixtures in the 2014 season. A Drogheda-native, the young defender earned three starts for the Premier Division champions in waiting that term – all in the EA Sports Cup.
The Lilywhites triumph in that competition was Stephen Kenny’s first at Oriel Park. 10 more would soon follow before his ascension to the helm of the national team.
Aged 18, Kaguako was also named on the bench for the Lilywhites trip to Luxembourg to face Jeunesse d’Esch – the first European game of the Stephen Kenny era, an era that would culminate little over two years later with qualification for the group stages of the UEFA Europa League.
Now, the Angola-born defender is watching on with keen interest as Dundalk continue their latest journey into European football ‘proper’. The 25-year-old, who can play right back or in central defence, is playing his football for FC Wels in Austria’s Regionalliga Mitte, the sprawling third tier of the country’s football pyramid.
A former Dundalk FC player living a short distance from Vienna, Kaguako enjoys a unique view of the clashes between SK Rapid and his old side. Throw into the mix the fact that he is an Arsenal fan and Group B is throwing up a seemingly endless list of conflicts to consider.
Wels is located around a two hour drive west of Vienna and is Austria’s eight largest city. Their team though, however ambitious, is a far cry from being one of the country’s leading lights. Currently sitting bottom of the Regionalliga Mitte after 13 matches of a 30 game season, early season hopes for a promotion push have proved unfounded.
“I didn’t think the standard would be that good, but it actually is pretty good. The club told me that they had aspirations to get to the second division. They had a new coach in, they’ve signed new players, trying to get promotion,” Kaguako told LouthNow.ie.
“It would be the equivalent to the National League in England. Some teams are full time, some teams are part time. We’re a full time team. Seven new players came in during lockdown, and a new coach, and then two more players. We’re taking time to get used to each other. Once we time to find a way and gel, hopefully we can start to climb the ladder.
He has been in Austria since mid-July and is currently on hiatus – Austria’s lower leagues go on mid-season break from November to February – meaning he has plenty of time to reflect on how he’s got to a small Austrian city, not much bigger than the two towns in Louth he’s so familiar with.
After leaving Dundalk to pursue academic studies in the United States, Kagauko had a brief stint with Drogheda United and then a longer one in London, although the latter involved no football. Eventually in 2017, he landed an opportunity to take on a scholarship in the US, where he studied Sport, Exercise and Science and played semi-professional with Texas-based side Midland Odessa.
With studies all but complete and the Covid-19 cat out of the outbreak bag, he returned to Ireland in March this year. It was then that the search for a new club, at home or elsewhere in Europe, began in earnest.
Dundalk’s second sojourn into the group stages of European competition seems like a world away from their first tentative steps into European action under Stephen Kenny in 2014, away to Luxembourg outfit Jeunesse d’Esch. A host of players who played in that game remain at the club.
Sean Gannon, Brian Gartland, Andy Boyle, Dane Massey, John Mountney, Chris Shields, David McMillan and Patrick Hoban are all key components in the Dundalk 2020 side under Head Coach Filippo Giovagnoli and all bar the returning Massey and injured Hoban are likely to feature against the Austrians on Thursday evening at the Dublin Stadium.
Kaguako was there too, right at the outset of a journey that has culminated in Dundalk becoming the only Irish team to reach the group stages of a European competition more than once. Part of a clutch of young youth products that travelled to Luxembourg, Kaguako was the only teenager to make the matchday squad. He recalls the memory fondly.
“I remember that whole experience. That was the best experience of my life. As a kid, you watch the Champions League or the UEFA Cup on TV. Martin Connolly (then the club’s Under 19 boss) text us to say me, Georgie Poynton, Ryan Davis, Paul Finnegan and Conor McDonald – Stephen Kenny wanted to bring us for experience.
“I remember getting there and I was told I was on the bench. It didn’t hit me until just before kick off. Sean Gannon wasn’t having the best game and Stephen Kenny kept looking at back at me. I was thinking, ‘Don’t put me on, don’t put me on’. My legs were shaking. I was so nervous.
“He kept looking back at me. And then he told Simon Kelly to warm up,” he says.
Two second half goals from Richie Towell put Dundalk in pole position in the tie and they ended up advancing via a 5-1 aggregate score line to face Hajduk Split in the second qualifying round for the 2014/15 Champions League proper.
“There were big names in that team that had never played in Europe, people like Richie Towell,” Kaguako says. The defender is effusive in his praise of Kenny, who he says was supportive of young players.
“When Stephen Kenny was there, he was good to me as a young kid. He gave me a chance, an opportunity. I played a few games, won the League Cup. I managed to get seen by the Irish Colleges squad too.
“He tried to make me feel accepted in the squad. I was coming in and I was nervous. He told to obviously respect the boys, but I showed them too much respect, I’d get bullied. He pushed me. Martin Connolly, the Under 19s coach, he also pushed me. They were all behind me.
“Stephen Kenny as a person was pretty intimidating. I’m not going to lie. When he walked into a room, everyone would go silent. He was a very nice person and a great coach. He brought Irish football to a higher level. He had Dundalk playing great football.
He continues: “He could give you a rocket. If he needed to, he would. As a young kid, he’d put an arm over your shoulder but he would give you a rollicking. The owners backed Stephen Kenny. Everyone had a lot of respect for him.”
“I had a good relationship with Vinny Perth too. He would tell us young lads we could get into any other LOI teams. It gave us the confidence to keep going in football.”
Kaguako could have stayed at Oriel Park beyond the 2014 season, but with his mind made up to pursue a scholarship opportunity in the United States – one he ended up having to wait almost three years to begin – he decided to depart the club.
Stephen Kenny offered him a fresh one-year contract but his young defender told him he was keen to do the scholarship. He first got a bemused look and then a handshake from the manager and was on his way.
Was it the right choice?
“I don’t know,” Kaguako replies honestly. “It turns out everything is going good for me now, but it took six years to get back into the football system.”