Cross-border showdown at Windsor Park to pass by unnoticed
Europa League qualification begins on Thursday night for Cork City and Linfield
Windsor Park will host Cork City on Thursday night. Photograph: Kevin Scott/Inpho
It will pass by unnoticed by the majority but the curtain comes up on a new Europa League season this week and, among a number of fascinating fixtures, it features a cross-border battle in Ireland. Yet, figuratively speaking, Linfield of the north and Cork City of the south will be a million miles from the glamour of the latter stages and not much closer to the attention accorded their national teams at the European Championship.
Supporters travelled in their tens of thousands to support Michael and Martin O’Neill’s sides and, rightfully, took plenty of credit for the bonhomie they infectiously spread across France - to the extent that the republic’s supporters have been given an award by the mayor of Paris.
Solid campaigns have provided much cause for optimism on both halves of the divide and there has been a clamour for fans to get out and support the clubs on their doorstep. History, however, suggests that will not happen.
The reasons are longstanding and complex - stretching from incompetence behind the scenes and a poor public image to inadequate facilities and the more attractive proposition of a short flight to watch football in England. Solutions, no matter how obvious, are not implemented correctly despite numerous expensive reviews and a litany of broken promises.
Media attention, too, is scarce. Dublin’s St Patrick’s Athletic won the first leg of their first qualifying round match against Jeunesse Esch of Luxembourg on Tuesday but it did not warrant a mention on the state broadcaster’s evening news bulletin. Cork held a press conference in Belfast on Wednesday; only one journalist bothered to turn up.
Yet this fixture provides numerous fascinating subplots - it is just a pity it will not capture the imagination beyond a loyal hardcore. Last season Linfield averaged a little over 2,000 fans and Cork bring about 3,200 through their turnstiles, though those figures vary significantly depending on the opposition. To put those numbers into context both are the best supported teams in their respective leagues.
Their only previous meeting came nine years ago in a semi-final of the now-defunct Setanta Cup, a cross-border knockout competition that mirrored strong calls for an All-Ireland league but ultimately fell flat. That game, also at Windsor Park, ended in a 1-0 win for Linfield, triggering an extreme reaction from the then Cork midfielder Joe Gamble, who said Cork dominated to such an extent, or as he put it “molested the ball”, that they should have won.
There may also be a little bit of tension in the stands - Linfield come from a loyalist background and there is an inevitable spark when north meets south.
After Uefa charged the Belfast club €15,000 for supporters breaching standing rules two years ago, they are wary of incurring fines that, for a club of modest size, are financially “crippling”. A statement said: “This club is most anxious to avoid a repeat of any actions that could have serious implications for this club.” The PSNI have published a list of regulations and warnings, adding that they will make “maximum use” of video equipment to film supporters.
Both clubs have more in common than they will care to admit, not least their need to progress in this competition, because the financial rewards outweigh those available in their respective domestic leagues.
Advancing one round in the Europa League qualifiers is worth more than €200,000. In comparison the winners of the League of Ireland earn €110,000 after an eight-month season. For finishing second last season Cork won €55,000. In Northern Ireland the prize money is not made public but Crusaders, the current champions, earned less than six figures.
And that is the crux of the matter: both leagues receive insufficient investment. The respective FAs will have earned a minimum €10m from their national sides’ performances in France and when, in the Republic’s case at least, almost a third of the squad are products of domestic clubs the disparity between the sums involved appears dramatically unbalanced. Not least with the association’s chief executive, John Delaney, earning €360,000 per annum.
While his relationship with the league is divisive - in the past he has referred to it as a “problem child” - it is unfair to lay the problems solely at the feet of the association, though a significant amount of criticism is deserved.
Clubs have been mismanaged financially for decades and only last month Athlone Town, of the Republic’s First Division, a club that once drew in the Uefa Cup with Milan, were unable to field a team because the players had not been paid.
A couple of first-teamers were earning €20 or €30 a week - no, not a misprint - but expected to train like professionals. Weeks earlier Athlone had to abandon a game because they had failed to pay their electricity bill; they brought in a generator to power the floodlights but that ended up failing.
That is only one of many stories of farce and perhaps explains why thousands of national team supporters stay away.
However, the few first-timers that roll up at Windsor Park on Thursday night or at the reverse fixture in Cork next Thursday will be pleasantly surprised to find two good teams from better-run clubs and a selection of young players who will rise to better things.
Those players deserve better and it is time their talents were brought to a wider audience - but for that to happen, structures off the field must alter greatly.