European chance can't pass us by
ST PAT'S V Skonto Riga, 7.45
TUCKED away behind a row of terraced houses, Richmond Park is one of the most secluded grounds involved in Europa League action across the continent tonight.
Legend had it that Mick McCarthy, when bringing his Millwall side to Inchicore to play in a friendly back in the day, insisted that the coach driver drive up and down Emmet Road a few times as he could not believe there was a football stadium hidden away there.
Many of the big European nights have also bypassed Richmond Park as, due to UEFA ground regulations, the club's big home ties in Europe of late (Hertha Berlin, Steaua Bucharest, Hannover, Legia Warsaw) were all moved to the RDS or Tallaght Stadium from the Saints' traditional home ground.
They are on home soil tonight as Liam Buckley's men take on Skonto Riga, the Latvian outfit leading 2-1 from the first leg, and it's a confidence boost for the Saints ahead of tonight's clash that the record at Richmond is decent, seven wins (and just one defeat) in the last 10 Euro ties played here.
But no one in the Saints camp will take the Latvians for granted - two years ago in this competition, Pats headed into the second leg at home with - so it seemed - the job done from the away leg, a score draw. But a side from the Baltics left Pats in a state as Zalgiris Vilnuis won 2-1 and went on to reach the playoff round of the competition.
"Yeah it's passed us by on a couple of occasions," Buckley says of the club's home record in Europe "We did very well against [Bosnian side] Siroki here a few years back, we beat them here in extra time and the place was fantastic, great support, full house and it was a great night for the club.
"But, that said, we got done by Zalgiris here. After 44 minutes they hadn't a shot on Brendan Clarke, it was a counter attack from the corner and we conceded a goal which changed the dynamic of the game.
"We had Hannover in Tallaght, with respect they're not a bad little outfit in the Premier Division in Germany. Legia Warsaw, they're not bad either," added Buckley, who stresses that whiole his side have struggled to match those big-name opponents, it's a level playing field against Skonto, who came from 1-0 in Riga to win 2-1.
"From where we're at, there's very little between the sides. They'd be at our level and we have a chance and we just need to be patient at it, especially in the first few minutes, we have to stay in the game and give ourselves a chance of popping them. We have seen areas we feel we can exploit and hopefully we'll be okay."
In past campaigns, Irish clubs went into a tie like this one not knowing what was awaiting them on the other side. For Pats the path ahead is clear: barring a disaster for Hungarian side Debrecen (they are 3-0 up from the first leg against Montenegro outfit Sutejska), Pats will be facing up to Debrecen in the next round, a club who mace the group stages of the Champions League and Europa League in recent times.
But there's also a financial imperative as Pats - just as Shamrock Rovers did earlier this week - will bank a €210,000 bonus from UEFA just for making it through.
"It's worth a couple of hundred thousand Euro which would have a serious impact on your budget," Buckley admits.
"We went through three rounds in Europe two years back and the money was a hell of a lot less then, less than €100,000 per round, compared to €200,000. So you do the sums, half a million Euro would make a serious impact."
Pats were probably the better side in the away leg and deserved that lead goal from Aaron Greene but the heat in Riga and Skontos physical presence gave them and edge and two goals.
But now they're on home soil, Buckley feels his side have a chance, especially given the vast European experience in the squad.
"Conan Byrne, Killian Brennan, they have all played in Europe and no doubt they will all be excited about the potential of getting through the tie," he says.
"It would be nice to play Debrecen, but we have to stay focused on getting a result and a performance to match that result. If we play well, I think we can win.
"We were disappointed with the result out there as I felt we at least deserved a draw, bearing in mind Christy Fagan and Christopher Forrester had reasonable chances. When I think back to what they had, their general play wasn't too bad.
"As I said to the guys, we don't just go in the first minute or the first 20 minutes, we've got 90 minutes to go and play and if we give ourselves a chance with a chance or two, I've no doubt we'll score."
Sean Hoare, who started in Riga but picked up an injury, misses out but Lee Desmond is likely to deputise in defence, while Conan Byrne - who was not risked in the away leg - could come in to the staring XI.