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End of era for Dundalk?

Pendulum swings to Rovers ahead of Euro campaign

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TURNING POINT: Dundalk captain Chris Shields leads
out his team at Dalymount Park last week

TURNING POINT: Dundalk captain Chris Shields leads out his team at Dalymount Park last week

SPORTSFILE

TURNING POINT: Dundalk captain Chris Shields leads out his team at Dalymount Park last week

With fans barred from travel and ties reduced to one leg behind closed doors, the buzz generated by the first round of European draws was lacking.

Yet they remain as significant as ever for Irish clubs, with 2020 actually representing the end of an era.

The consequences will become clearer next month when UEFA make decisions about the financial rewards on offer in the new third competition, the Europa Conference, which comes into the equation from 2021. Its purpose is to tidy up the Europa League and make it an elite equivalent to the Champions League.

Put simply, the Conference will be the entry point for most qualifiers from the smaller leagues. The exception to the case is the league champions, although they may end up there.

This year, Dundalk entered the Champions League, while the other three qualifiers started off in the Europa League with UEFA grouping them with green list options ahead of yesterday's draw.

Shamrock Rovers host Tampere of Finland, while Derry travel to take on Lithuanian side Riteriai and Bohemians are in Hungary to meet Fehervar, a club formally known as Videoton that has links with the country's right wing leader Viktor Orban. Alas, Bohs have not registered their away 'Refugees Welcome' jersey for Europe.

In 2021, the champion will still enter the Champions League qualifiers, but the other three teams will go into the Conference needing to win four ties to reach the group stage of that less prestigious tournament.

UEFA were expected to sweeten the deal by keeping the financial rewards similar to the Europa League but that is now up in the air courtesy of Covid.

Therefore, it's really only the champions of small countries that benefit from this with UEFA promising group stage games for a greater number of nations.

A s it stands, if Dundalk lose to Slovenian side Celje in Hungary next week, they will drop into the Europa League. From next year, Ireland's top side won't just get a crack at the Europa League if and when they go out.They will have a parachute to the Conference League a s a consolation for any loss there. There's serious margin for error in the attempt to extend the European campaign and collect the associated riches.

So the 18 game 2020 title race is arguably the most significant in recent memory and Rovers are well in command. They are timing their run well, whereas Dundalk have hit the rocks at an unfortunate window, when this was supposed to be the year where the backing of their US owners strengthened their position. They are trending in the wrong way at the worst possible time.

Rovers, by contrast, may just feel that things are falling their way. There might have been a view out there that Europe wouldn't be high priority this year because the focus is to claim the title and move into the Champions League earning bracket.

However, beyond the obvious short term financial angles, they have another reason to take it very seriously with the longer term in mind.

Seeds for UEFA draws are calculated on the basis of a club's individual five year performance - the league's overall ranking only determines what rounds they enter at.

This is why Dundalk feel unlucky to draw a Celje side that were unseeded due to having no European pedigree of their own but hail from a league that has put forward regular group stage qualifiers Maribor.

Dundalk are in a healthy seeding position after a run of success but the superb 2016 campaign is nearing the end of its eligibility so they need to keep their levels high. Seeded status in that first Champions League round is the holy grail, although Dundalk have yet to be handed an easy draw since attaining it.

What's significant is that Rovers consistency of competing in the Europa League has put them in with a live squeak of being seeded at the first Champions League hurdle next term should they go on and win the league.

Without getting bogged down in calculations, Rovers' coefficient currently sit at 4.25 and there's an extra 0.5 for each Europa League hurdle they cross in 2020.

This year, 4.75 was the cutoff point for Champions League seeding (Dundalk are on 8.5). In 2019, it was 5.5 but in 2018 it was a low 3.75. It's clear Bradley's side are on the threshold and the Tampere tie really matters.

Dundalk, by contrast, have more to lose at home but probably need to do something on foreign fields to avoid tough questions about the use of their budget.

Momentum is swinging the pendulum towards the Hoops. This strange and hurried football year could have long lasting implications.