A goal pitched in front of a car park provided a strange backdrop to a penalty shootout that meant the world to two football clubs.
And it was the players of Dundalk that held their nerve in an unbelievably dramatic series of kicks to book their passage to the next round of the Champions League.
Vinny Perth’s team lost their scoring touch across 210 scoreless minutes, but they did enough from the spot to get past a sturdy Riga team.
After both sides converted their opening three penalties, they both missed their next two. Dundalk were going second, but home keeper Roberts Ozols saved from Dane Massey and Georgie Kelly – the latter would have put them through if he had converted.
But Dundalk would get another chance in sudden death after Gary Rogers saved from Armands Petersons – his second stop of the shootout – to give defender Sean Hoare a shot at glory.
He converted to ensure another €400,000 for the Oriel Park coffers, on top of their initial €800,000 for participation, and a two-legged tie with Azerbaijan powerhouses Qarabag.
The first leg will take place in Dundalk next Wednesday.
Dundalk would never have forgiven themselves if they passed up the opportunity to make it possible.
Granted, the unavailability of Michael Duffy – who was unable to make it due to the imminent birth of his first child – did weaken Perth’s hand.
And his pace would certainly have brought something extra to a tense affair that was low on attacking quality.
There were signs in the early minutes that the natives were going to show a bit more ambition compared to their conservative showing in Oriel Park last week.
But they ultimately were content to allow Dundalk have the ball for long spells and, in truth, the only chances for the natives in the first half came after mistakes from the guests. Robbie Benson was called in to start and Dundalk are generally a better side with the Athlone man in it, but he did make a couple of errors in possession.
Rogers came off the line to mop up first time around, while striker Roman Debelko fired narrowly wide just before the interval.
Dundalk were the better side, though, even if the Latvians generally succeeding in keeping them at arm’s length. Duffy’s pace was missed, with his good pal Patrick McEleney shifted to the left side. He was a threat and came closest to breaking the deadlock with a shot after a dead ball was cleared to the edge of the box with Ozols alert to get down and make a fine save.
Sean Gannon made a couple of dangerous overlaps from right full, pressing ahead of John Mountney, while Jamie McGrath also made some positive contributions from his central attacking berth. The away side just couldn’t find space in the area, with the Latvians just about staying on the right side of the official on a couple of occasions.
And that remained a theme for the remainder of normal time, with Riga marshalling their area well. Dundalk’s attacking play was laboured, with the offside flag going up on the one occasion Patrick Hoban got free in the box. His converted header didn’t count.
Perth sent in Sean Murray and then Daniel Kelly with a view to freshening things up, yet there was a lack of fluidity in their passing and Riga were always able to regroup. They stepped up their own display after the introduction of the inventive Felipe Brisola, their star player, who made his comeback from an injury sustained in Ireland before the first leg.
They had their moments around the Dundalk area with Debelko heading wide from the best of them. Andy Boyle and Hoare controlled their department with relative ease though, a pairing which had never actually played together before.
Extra time followed a similar enough pattern, with a superb block from Hoare to deny Debelko the defensive highlight. Kelly was Dundalk’s main threat and a couple of direct runs gave the Latvians the type of problem they hadn’t been presented with enough. There was a twist with ten minutes to go as persistent fouling caught up with them. Albanian Herdi Prenga was sent off for a second booking, just as Dundalk were preparing to bring in Georgie Kelly as a second striker.
But there were signs of fatigue in the Dundalk camp and they were unable to make the most of the numerical advantage as Riga ran down the clock in search of penalties.
For the locals, heartbreak beckoned. For the guests, a mixture of relief and exhilaration.
RIGA FC: Ozols; Saric, Prenga, Cernomordijs; Petersons, Laizans (Panic 81), Rugins, Roger (Brisola 51), Visnakovs (Gabovs 105); Bopesu (Rakels 52), Debelko
DUNDALK: Rogers; Gannon, Boyle, Hoare, Massey; Shields (Jarvis 99), Benson (D Kelly 80); Mountney (Murray 64), McEleney , McGrath; Hoban.
Referee: D Meckarovski (Macedonia)
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