Dundalk target man Ciaran Kilduff reflected on an arduous journey back from injury after scoring his side’s late equaliser in a dramatic 1-1 draw against AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League on Thursday evening.

In a season which has oscillated between heady peaks and deep troughs for Kilduff, his speedy recovery from a broken vertebra suffered in an EA Sports Cup clash with St Patrick’s Athletic has bordered on the miraculous.

The 27-year-old was due to be sidelined for several months, but was back in action after just six weeks.

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“It’s special,” Kilduff told RTÉ Sport’s Tony O’Donoghue, as Dundalk became the first Irish club to earn a point in the group stages of a European competitions after their draw at AFAS Stadion in North Holland.

“I’ve had a tough year myself, and this little league probably gets looked down on a bit, but it’s a league with passionate supporters and passionate players.

“It’s not just for myself or the team tonight, it’s for the League of Ireland.

“A lot of people don’t take much interest in it. A lot of people maybe only hear about the big game, but we go in and we work hard every day.  

“Away from football, I’ve had a difficult injury-stricken season and I can’t describe what a relief and what a great feeling that was for me tonight.

“It’s just a testament to the medical team we have here, and to the manager, who constantly has faith in me.

“Thankfully, I was able to repay him and the supporters tonight.”

Kilduff expanded on the extent of his injury problems, chronicling his recovery not just from that broken back, but also from a knee problem which scuppered his hopes of featuring in the second leg of Dundalk’s Champions League play-off round against Polish champions Legia Warsaw.

He paid tribute to Dundalk physio Fergal Kerin, as well as to his family, who supported him when his mood darkened, saying: “I broke a vertebra in my back halfway through the season and I got a good bit of treatment done by the medical staff.

“Fergal Kerin, who is probably one of my best mates, he kept me positive and gave me the best of treatment and I finally got back.

“Then I get back - I’m probably not match-sharp - and I end up doing my LCL in my knee in training and I miss another three or four weeks, and I miss the second leg against Legia.  

“I’m sitting at home watching it and I’m thinking ‘have I missed an opportunity there?’.  

“I had to keep myself positive.

“My girlfriend and my baby, I’m with them a lot and, thankfully, tonight I was able to repay a lot of people who stuck by me, because I know when I’m injured I can be a bit of a nuisance and a burden on everyone.”

With just one minute of normal time remaining, Dundalk found themselves in what many would have regarded as a hopeless predicament.

“I was only on and I felt like I’d played two matches!”

They were behind after Stijn Wuytens’ 60th-minute headed goal and had been shorn of Stephen O’Donnell after he saw red after picking up a second yellow card.

But Kilduff insisted his side never lost belief, buoyed by spirited comebacks earlier on their European adventure against BATE Borisov and FH Hafnarfjordur.

“It was stacked against us, but we’ve come back a few times this year,” Kilduff said.  

“We were behind to BATE, you probably would have given us little hope.

“We were behind to FH.

“We needed two goals and Dave (McMillan) came up with two.

“We have character and I was delighted to show a bit of mine tonight.

“Andy Boyle, Chris Shields and the whole defence... some of the blocks at the end, it was the longest ten minutes of my life!

“I was only on and I felt like I’d played two matches!”

On a night when so many of his team-mates shone, Kilduff cited Daryl Horgan as the brightest star in the Dundalk firmament.  

“He was a magician tonight again,” Kilduff enthused.

“He was the man of the match. He was probably the best player on the pitch, in my opinion.

“I’ve played with him for many years and he can do things like that.”