Its European football time again, folks. As I speak, St. Pats are out, having very creditably beaten Rijeka of Croatia and then exiting by the narrowest of margins to FC Ghent, who had the Indian sign over them in more ways than one. Shels are still in with a shout of progressing to the next round of the Champions League after a 2-2 draw away to Hibernians of Malta, while Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk have yet to play.
I am not a clairvoyant of any great note but it does not take deep insight to predict our results in Europe. Shels will make it past Hibs but then succumb to Boavista. Shamrock Rovers will lose narrowly to their Swedish opponents over two legs, while Dundalk will find their Croatian opponents too hot to handle. In short, our clubs’ involvement in European competitions will be over before the end of August, before most countries realise that the competitions have actually started.
I realise that I will be accused of having no faith in our ability to progress. By nature I am pessimistic in football terms, believing that confidence frequently begets a fall, but I doubt there would be many arguments with the predictions above.
The Holy Grail for Irish clubs in Europe of course is qualification for the group stages of the Champions League or the third round of the UEFA Cup. Imagine Real Madrid coming to Tallaght, Juventus in Inchicore, Bayern Munich at Tolka. Imagine the sell-out crowds, the buzz of regular European football, the television companies, the revenue, the profile…’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
The question is – how far away from this idea of heaven are we, and are we even heading in the right direction?
Many of us remember the lean years in Irish soccer, the years when scarcely anybody ever won a match in Europe, never mind a tie over two legs. We were never lacking in effort and achieved numerous moral victories, but we never achieved the elusive breakthrough. And the fact that we never achieved the breakthrough meant we were normally drawn against sides with a higher coefficient than us. [I don’t pretend to understand how coefficients are calculated, other than the higher the coefficient, the higher the seeding.]
The parallels with the international team are interesting. Ireland kept on being drawn into difficult groups, because we had never qualified, and we never qualified because we kept on getting drawn into difficult groups. It took a series of unexpected results for us to make the initial breakthrough –Scotland to beat Belgium, Ireland to beat Bulgaria, Scotland to beat Bulgaria – but once in, we stayed there because our seeding improved.
It may well be that it will take an equally improbable series of results to make the breakthrough in The Champions League [Shels to beat Hibs, Shels to beat Boavista, Shels to beat Man Utd?] This may seem far-fetched but at least we are heading in the right direction.
Our club sides are now expected to beat the minnows – the Luxembourgs, the Cypriots and the Maltesers, which explains why a lot of people were somewhat disappointed that Shels only drew away to Hibernians. [How many years did we go without an away win?] We are also expected to at least hold our own against the next group of countries up the international scale – the smaller East European countries, Switzerland, Iceland etc. We have a difficult task against the next group of countries – the bigger East European countries, Scandinavia and France – and the gulf is probably too large when faced with teams from the European super powers [Bohs take a bow].
Viewed from this angle, Pats results in Europe this season were remarkable. That they defeated a Croatian team over two legs was surprising, but the fact that they only narrowly missed pipping a Belgian side was truly stupendous. Two years ago, such results would have been unthinkable.
The big breakthrough will come eventually, and it will probably take a bizarre set of results, or a very favourable draw to turn it into reality. When it happens, it will be the biggest night in the League’s 80-year history. Not alone the huge amounts of money that will come into the League through attendances and television rights, not alone that we might have a decent carrot to entice our young players to remain in Ireland, rather than chancing their arms in Walsall reserves, not alone that domestic players might get called up to international squads, not alone the profile that our domestic game will receive around Europe, but it will also raise our coefficient, and make qualification a lot easier in the future for all of our clubs.
The rewards are immense. Huge. Incalculable. It will transform our domestic game completely. Imagine a domestic league with full houses, with international players on show, with , God forbid, English players looking to come over here for a chance to play in European football.
As I said, it will be a fluke when it happens, but we must do everything in our power to lessen the odds stacked against us. If Pat Dolan wants a league game postponed to help his side, it should be postponed. If he wants a fortnight to prepare, give him a fortnight to prepare. Shels travelled to Malta five days before the match to acclimatise. This is good, this is professional. If Shels beat Hibs and then draw the away game against Boavista, we must ensure there is a full house for the return, even if it means the gate receipts aren’t maximised. Petty jealousies must be put aside to ensure that the full weight of the league is behind the clubs striving for that elusive European breakthrough. We’re heading in the right direction – we just have to break the circle.