European ties now the making of a season for Irish clubs

Once considered a jolly-up, League of Ireland clubs’ seasons now often hinge on the draw

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny celebrates after beating BATE Borisov last year. Photo: Ciaran Culligan/Inpho

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny celebrates after beating BATE Borisov last year. Photo: Ciaran Culligan/Inpho

 

It must be two decades or more since a then Derry City manager dismissed the significance of some European outing to me with the explanation that these competitions were only about the trips which, in turn, were about giving players a bit of a beano as reward for whatever achievement had qualified the club to participate in the first place.

Things have changed, changed utterly, at least on this side of the border where the efforts, most obviously of Shelbourne then Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk in recent seasons have shown just what it is possible for an Irish club to achieve with the efforts of Stephen Kenny’s men last year also underlining just how richly rewarded they can be for achieving it.

Dundalk grossed around €7 million and, while that was exceptional, the money more generally on offer at this stage means that every club with any sort of shout of it prioritises Europe now; seasons are defined by it and, in some cases, personnel hired and fired because of it. The stakes, everyone appreciates, are enormous; a Champions League win – even a Europa League goal – can, as we have seen, be worth more to a club than a title success in terms of actual prize money.

A manager who regarded it all as no more than a beano would not, it seems safe to assume, last a single day.

So, it was a little curious to see the comments by Linfield chairman Roy McGivern regarding his club’s potential game against Celtic in the wake of Monday’s Champions League draw.

Before prize money was a factor and clubs here depended on a combination of gate receipts and the television revenues accrued from home games to generate revenues from ties, the prevailing philosophy was that you wanted to draw either very beatable opponents or very attractive ones; the thinking effectively being that getting past one of the former extended a team’s involvement and ultimately increased the chances of getting one of the latter. Coming up against strong but obscure sides from Eastern Europe was generally considered to be a disaster.

All of this was rooted in the belief that the best a club could hope for really was a single significant payday. Sure, legends were born out of the likes of Dundalk running Celtic so close but the reality was that such games sold out grounds and had the potential to bankroll a club for a season or more.

The likes of Manchester United, Tottenham and Everton (just to dwell on some of the best known English sides) came here and were occasionally given a fright but nights that mixed great success both on and off the pitch were rare and, as with Limerick and Real Madrid, occasionally one was entirely sacrificed for the other and then neither was achieved.

The competitive sacrifice most obviously and often made was the surrendering of home advantage in the second leg. It was routinely done on the basis, acknowledged or not, that the tie would essentially be as dead a doornail after the away leg and nobody would show up for the return game. It is not a perfect example but John Caulfield’s determination to resist an attempt by Levadia Tallinn to have the order of their games against Cork City reversed was a reminder this week of how things have changed on that front.

So too was Dundalk’s disappointment at drawing Rosenborg. Stephen Kenny talked in positive terms of the challenge involved, not just for his side but also for the Norwegians, but it was clear that his objective is to progress with just one win in effect guaranteeing a crack at making the group stages of both competitions, at least two more rounds of football and substantially more prize money. So this, ideally, was a round too early to be facing opponents of such quality.

McGivern, on the other hand, described Linfield getting Celtic as the best outcome imaginable for the Belfast club on Monday: “a terrific draw,” and was actively resisting any suggestion that the order of the games might be reversed; something that would, notionally at least, give his side the competitive edge of playing at home second. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that he was entirely resigned to the Irish League champions losing, though.

Linfield’s record, in fairness, would lend a bit of weight to that presumption, though. This will be the Belfast club’s 45th time in Europe and they have successfully come through at least one round on just nine occasions with four of those coming in the last six seasons, all against opposition from the Faros Islands.

To be fair, few Airtricity League clubs have a record to shout from the rooftops about but Linfield’s defeat of Shamrock Rovers on away goals in 1984 is arguably their best ever result in European competition and Rovers, for whom the corresponding stat is nine progressions of a round or more in 25 attempts to date, have at least done rather better than that on one occasion since.

Clearly, the timing of the season in the north is a major factor but despite the massive expansion of the European prize pot there appears to have been little move to address the issue. Crusaders, indeed, went into ties on at least two occasions in recent years without their manager because he was on a pre-booked summer holiday with his family.

In the case of Linfield now, there is obviously an old style payday in the offing; a sell-out crowd at Windsor Park and a decent sized cheque from a broadcaster, but even allowing for the unique nature of the tie, it is not clear how much more than the minimum €600,000 or so they might stand to make than they could by just winning the actual tie. In fact, most of the other revenue could probably be secured anyway and aspiring to progress would be something to genuinely admire.

Instead, an excursion to Glasgow is, it is suggested by McGivern, potentially the trip of a lifetime. Suddenly it seems like marriage equality might not be the only area in which the north is lagging a little behind the rest of the island.

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