European Dreams – The battle for fourth in the League of Ireland

The battle for fourth place in the Premier League has gone right to the wire and will make or break the season for the clubs involved.

The giants of the European game all want to play in the UEFA Champions League and share in the glory and the money that follows. Attracting quality players to play for the successful clubs suddenly becomes a lot easier.

Across the Irish Sea the money on offer is much less but means more in relative terms.

Fourth place doesn’t mean a Champions League spot and it will only ensure a Europa League place if one of the top four wins the cup.

Shamrock Rovers held off a late challenge from Sligo Rovers to take fourth place in 2016 and the Dublin club earned €4000 more in prize-money (€25,000 as opposed to €21,000).

Both clubs paid an affiliation fee of €17,000 leaving a net €8000 for fourth place.

However, Shamrock Rovers will earn a minimum of €215,000 for participating in the first qualifying round of the Europa League.

Last year, clubs such as St. Patrick’s Athletic who fell at the second hurdle pocketed €440,000 while Cork City earned €675,000 in losing to KRC Genk in the third qualifying round.

Of course, there are travelling expenses. These are offset by increased sponsorship and gate receipts from home ties.

European qualification is very lucrative and very important for Irish clubs; the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) understands the importance of these games and facilitates clubs in postponing or bringing forward fixtures.

Qualifying for Europe and then even getting through one round can make or break a budget for the following season.

Although the 2017 season has yet to reach the halfway point the battle for the last European place is already fascinating.

Cork City are runaway league leaders and already seem certain to shed the bridesmaid tag as Dundalk seem to have lost too many players and their hopes of four in a row lie in tatters.

They should still manage the runners-up spot just ahead of Bray Wanderers who now occupy that place twelve points adrift of Cork.

Bray spent big in the close season but spent wisely and hey are favourites to qualify for Europe for the first time since the turn of the millennium.

The other spot for the FAI Cup winners but if one of the top three lift the cup then the battle for fourth will be crucial.

Derry City now occupy fourth place, four points ahead of Shamrock Rovers with dark horses Limerick two points further back.

Limerick have already replaced manager Martin Russell with Neil McDonald. McDonald is a former assistant to Sam Allardyce who began his managerial career at Limerick.

He is expected to aim for European football but the smart money is still be on one of the two more established clubs this year.

North of the border, Linfield may have won another double but the celebrations were dwarfed by those 50 kilometers further north.

Ballymena United capped a fantastic season by winning the playoff for the last Europa League place.

In his first full season, David Jeffrey led the Braidmen to a League Cup win and fourth place.

They still had to successfully negotiate a playoff semi final and final.

Jeffrey won 31 trophies in 17 years as a manager at Linfield but he faced totally different challenges in Ballymena.

The club haven’t played in the mainstream European competitions since 1989. The scenes of joy at the final whistle were considered the best ever in the Ballymena Showgrounds.

The club won three Irish Cups in the 1980s but never experienced such a special night on home soil.

I am a lifelong Limerick fan and I have seen my club play in Europe.

As a boy my father brought me on European trips to Madrid, Southampton and Amsterdam.

My brother and I spent four days in Amsterdam before our last European game v AZ Alkmaar in 1982, though we were too young to appreciate and understand the attraction of places like Amsterdam back then.

My fervent wish is to return to European football before we are too old to care.

The Author

Gary Spain

Limerick born, Dublin based fan of Limerick FC and the Republic of Ireland national team. Gary has a keen interest in football across the island of Ireland and worldwide. He is a contributor to the Republic of Ireland and Limerick FC programmes and to Northern Ireland Football magazine.

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