St Patrick’s Athletic v CSKA Sofia (Bulgaria)
Tallaght Stadium, 7.45pm – Live RTÉ News Now
(St Pat’s lead 1-0 from first leg)
Glass half full, St Patrick’s Athletic are within touching distance of the Conference League groups stages.
They recruited a competent young coach in Tim Clancy last winter after Stephen O’Donnell took himself, some key players and the office stapler to Dundalk.
CSKA did not see Chris Forrester coming, which is their own fault, but nobody could have predicted Serge Atakayi’s late goal in Sofia.
That includes the Finnish under-21, who sought asylum in Helsinki as a teenager before replacing Darragh Burns, a home-grown teenager who went to MK Dons, as Atakayi’s wild swipe hoodwinked CSKA goalkeeper Gustavo Busatto to gift an open goal and no time for the Bulgarians to recover.
It was a result that reverberated around the European game. Coupled alongside Shamrock Rovers’ long-planned progress, the rest of the world is wondering whether this Irish footballing revolution might be sustainable.
Glass half empty, St Pat’s are not ready for the next leap. They exceeded all internal and external expectations in the middle of a squad rebuild with progress to the cusp of the Europa Conference League forcing a move from Richmond Park to Tallaght Stadium.
Considering the turnout at the Aviva Stadium for last season’s FAI Cup final against Bohemians, a switch to the big house was tempting but, after receiving only a third of the gross from that event, Tallaght became the more prudent switch to attain Uefa standards.
There is much to admire about St Pat’s, particularly Joe Redmond at centre half and Rovers loan signing Barry Cotter. But it is Forrester’s ability to link play with veteran striker Eoin Doyle that might prove sufficient to deny CSKA, despite the visitors’ vastly superior budget and spread of international-calibre player.
If St Pat’s survive, a Conference League play-off, probably against Brondby of Denmark, if they see off Basel of Switzerland, with more travel and fixture chaos to earn the €3 million windfall. That progress would be beyond anything ever achieved by an Irish club in Europe.
“We defended resolutely, and stuck to the game plan to frustrate them and limit them,” said Clancy last week.
“How we dealt with crosses was excellent and [we] still had a threat on the counter-attack. In the last couple of weeks we’ve left back-passes short, so it was good tonight we were on the other end of it.”
It is too early to imagine London nights against Declan Rice and West Ham or entering El Madrigal to stare down Villarreal. It is far too early for a club without a sufficient stadium and squad that lies fourth in the League of Ireland, already eight points adrift of third-placed Derry City, to qualify.
Far too early to be booking off September, October, November dates.