It’s a familiar sight for fans of League of Ireland clubs – July not yet over and Irish involvement in Europe finish for another year, with a couple of embarrassing margins suffered for good measure.
Yet, there’s something different too – this is as strong a year the domestic league has had on the European front in some time, with Sligo Rovers, Derry City and Dundalk helping themselves to five wins and one draw on their way to the second round, while champions St Patrick’s Athletic, Sligo and Dundalk each recorded outstanding results away from home following tough second round draws.
It’s little surprise that all four were eliminated at this stage. They were all unseeded in the draw, and were never likely to be able to compete on an even footing given the financial resources available to their opponents. Pats’ opponents Legia have a turnover of around €50 million, Sligo’s opponents Rosenborg more than €30 million, while Dundalk and Derry each faced opponents with turnover above €10 million. By contrast, none of the Irish sides breaks the €2 million barrier.
Nevertheless, football isn’t played on a balance sheet, and the early stages of this competition have seen some big underdog results, with sides from Andorra, the Faroe Islands and Iceland each overcoming larger and better-resourced opponents from elsewhere in Europe, while summer football always creates the opportunity for teams from Ireland to surprise a bigger side still getting to grips with a return to competitive football.
St Patrick’s Athletic travelled to Warsaw with little expected of them and came within three minutes of returning with a famous European victory. They approached the return tie in Tallaght with a slender advantage on the scoreboard, but the signs were evident even in Poland that the Saints might struggle to cope with their superior opponents. They were overrun for the entire second period over there, and were outplayed for the guts of 75 minutes in Dublin.
For Legia, it was about as unconvincing a 5-0 away win in Europe can come – they showed little to suggest they will cause Celtic any significant problems in the next round – and serves only to demonstrate what an opportunity Pats passed up. Legia were quick, hardworking and strong on the ball, but they offered little creativity throughout the two matches, and were thankful to a dreadful defensive show from late call-ups Derek Foran and Sean Hoare for all five of their second-leg goals.
In many ways, Hoare typifies the dilemma facing Pats at the moment. He’s a great prospect plucked from relative obscurity by Liam Buckley this season to plug holes left by injury and has arguably been their best performer at the back, however along with Chris Forrester he’s the only first team regular under the age of 25. Having had the carrot of Champions League football to dangle in front of players over the winter, fans have the right to question whether it was the right call to invest his resources in the returning Keith Fahey and five players discarded by fifth-place Shamrock Rovers, rather than the youth policy pursued by league leaders Dundalk and Cork City.
Circumstances conspired against Pats to an extent – they protested the Gardaí decision to move the game from Richmond Park to effectively neutral territory in Tallaght – but there is no escaping that they simply never got going in the second leg, and Legia were clinical at the right moments to put the tie comfortably beyond them. It’s difficult to know whether they were distracted by the potential of a third round clash with Celtic, however Liam Buckley’s comments in the lead-up to the game gave the impression the potential glamour tie had, to some extent, become an end in itself.
There are strong parallels between the situation unfolding at Pats and that of Sligo Rovers, who earned the dubious honour of becoming the first League of Ireland side to win a first leg away from home and fail to progress to the next round. Their 2-1 victory against Rosenborg in Trondheim was rightly hailed as a triumph – not just the result but the manner in which it was achieved – but they folded to an extent at the Showgrounds and conceded three poor goals to hand the Norwegians an undeserved aggregate victory.
Sligo, too, have an experienced squad, many of whom have league winners’ medals to their name, but there are few outstanding candidates coming through to replace them. Ian Baraclough won trophies in each of his three seasons at the club, but the players he brought in – the likes of Kieran Djalili and Eric Odhiambo – haven’t been the class of player Paul Cook coaxed over from England, however more worrisome for Sligo fans is the fact he stripped away the culture of swift-passing, attacking football instilled by Cook and reverted to a more pragmatic but tactically limited British-style game.
Sligo will require an extensive rebuild over the next couple of years if they are to continue to compete at the top of the table, yet it’s worth asking whether the title success of 2012 – while a landmark moment in the club’s history – has nevertheless come at the expense of medium-term competitiveness. To the neutral observer, it looks like the beginning of the end of an era at Sligo unless new coach John Coleman can find the right formula to rebuild the squad.
The terms ‘basket case’ and ‘Derry City’ have become virtually synonymous in recent years with everything from financial irregularities, boardroom fiascos and the, in hindsight, farcical decision to ditch Declan Devine after successive European qualifications in favour of a brief, and disastrous, flirtation with Roddy Collins, whose most notable contribution to the club was to alienate the majority of the homegrown and senior players.
Club legend Peter ‘Pizza’ Hutton came in less than three months into the season to attempt to steady the ship and he has exceeded the expectations of everybody, not least the long-suffering Finn Harps fans, by guiding his side to a record 9-0 aggregate win over Aberystwyth Town in the first qualifying round and setting up an eminently winnable encounter against the wealthy but untested Belarussian side, Shakhtyor Soligorsk.
A lazy Shane McEleney pass gifted Shakhtyor a 1-0 win at the Brandywell but, after going 1-0 up within 10 minutes in Belarus, Hutton’s team fell to pieces and conceded five unanswered goals, a performance that prompted Hutton to say the players had ‘let themselves down,’ however in light of where they started this season the European adventure has been an unexpected fillip for Derry and the signs look good.
With the FAI Cup Derry’s only realistic route to Europe next season, they’re unlikely to feature again until at least 2016, by which time the likes of the McEleney brothers, Paddy and Shane, and Barry McNamee will hope to have moved on to bigger clubs in the UK, but having extended his own deal to the end of next season, and with youth prospects like Tony McNamee and Mark Timlin already making an impression on the first team, the team appears to be on the right track and playing a positive brand of football, which bodes well.
Which brings us to the outstanding performance of the Irish season – and arguably the outstanding result achieved by any Irish side in the last decade – that of Dundalk in Croatia. While the result was ultimately meaningless in terms outcome of the tie, in terms of pure talent this Hajduk Split side are a notch above both the Partizan Belgrade side Shamrock Rovers overcame to reach the group stages in 2011, and the Legia side so very nearly downed by St Patrick’s Athletic in Poland last week.
Having gone 1-0 down early doors – and 3-0 on aggregate – lesser teams could easily have lost their way. Indeed, lesser teams did exactly that. Pats, Derry and Sligo each collapsed at some stage in their second-round defeats and, while Pats and Sligo may ponder what could have been, Dundalk will be the most wounded by the experience as they played well enough and created enough chances in both legs to win the tie convincingly.
It’s a chastening experience for what is a very young squad, but it’s one that might just have a happy ending. Whereas with Pats and Sligo, the overwhelming sense is that they’re going to have to get worse before they get better, the sky is the limit for this Dundalk squad and only a complete break-up of the squad as cross-channel vultures begin to circle can halt the momentum Stephen Kenny has built up at the Lilywhites.
There is a similar feeling surrounded Dundalk at the moment as the one that permeated Tallaght Stadium after the Europa League ties with Bnei Yehuda and Juventus, a realisation that not only do they belong at this level but that, with a capable, tactically-adept manager (Kenny, ironically, failed to succeed Michael O’Neill in Tallaght) and a team of hungry young players who aren’t content merely with domestic success, that they really can achieve something special.
If Kenny can convince some of Richie Towell, Andy Boyle, Chris Shields, Daryl Horgan and Pat Hoban to stick around for another season at the Louth club, there’s no telling what they could achieve.