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Wednesday 16 October 2019

Impossible dream

Euro woes not confined to Ireland but battle for group stages is getting harder

Dundalk's Pat Hoban shows his frustration during the Europa League game against Slovan Bratislava
Dundalk's Pat Hoban shows his frustration during the Europa League game against Slovan Bratislava

It was so close they could almost smell it, as an Irish club were only 45 minutes away from the group stages of the Champions League.

Now, 15 years on from Shelbourne's run, the group phase of that competition looks to be an utterly impossible dream for any club from Ireland.

But even the comfort of a spell in the group stages of the Europa League now looks far, far away, only three years after Dundalk played, and played with success, on that stage.

Irish football is not alone in feeling a chill from Europe this week: Qarabag, Celtic, Porto, Dynamo Kyiv, Basel, FC Copenhagen are all out of the Champions League; PSV Eindhoven and BATE Borisov only got to the second round, the same as Dundalk.

No one among the Dundalk support was calling for the head of coaches Vinny Perth and John Gill after they were ousted by Slovan Bratislava in Tallaght on Tuesday. The efforts of the staff and players were appreciated by the Dundalk fans, who shrugged and admitted that their side had just been beaten by a better team.

The same can't be said for Neil Lennon and Celtic, roundly abused around the green parts of Glasgow in the fallout from their shock loss to Cluj in the Champions League.

Some of those big clubs would have invested in and around €10m in their squads for this season and got back very little.

Celtic, despite having banked £25m from the sale of Kieran Tierney, still have a large hole in their budget (estimated about £13m) due to the loss of Champions League income.

Dundalk were not relying on more UEFA money this year as Celtic were: they have already banked €1.2m and would have 'only' gained another €300,000 from entering the playoff round while Shamrock Rovers made €500,000 from Europe this season.

Money is important but it's not everything and, for all the talk about their European riches, the cost to Dundalk of a charter flight alone to Azerbaijan to play Qarabag was €150,000.

Slovan reportedly have an annual budget of €10m, with €6m of that set aside for the playing squad alone.

Dundalk's overall budget is a fraction of that. "Our squad is half of the €3m," Perth concedes.

Qarabag have the sort of investment which puts them on a different level to Dundalk... but those millions in petrodollars could only get the boys from Baku one round further than the League of Ireland champions, as they lost out in the Champions League to Cypriot side APOEL.

Viable

Can Europe be viable for Irish clubs again, or has that race already been run?

There is a strong feeling that Irish football has been left way behind when it comes to Europe and that hopes of making the group phase again are just that, hopes, though Perth says he's a "dreamer" and feels it can be done.

Brian Kerr last week bemoaned the 'beige' nature of a League of Ireland which relies on Irish players and some imports from the UK. Opponents in Europe are more exotic: Apoel, the Cypriot side who beat Dundalk's conquerors, Qarabag, this week have a German manager and only two Cypriot players while the Qarabag and Slovan squads were multi-national efforts. The entire Dundalk squad come from Ireland or Britain and only one Dundalk man has played with a continental club.

Yet those within the game here admit that a combination of short-term contracts and low wages in the League of Ireland, and the high cost of living, make it hard to bring in good imports.

"I don't want to disrespect the players we have, they are very close to where we need to be but they need a bit of a hand," says Perth. "It's not just about money but it's about prestige, people coming into the league, clubs doing well in the playoff rounds in Europe."

He denies the charge that Dundalk struggle in Europe because they are not challenged enough in the league here.

"I have watched Slovan all season, they don't play tough games domestically either so the problem is the quality of player, the pool we have isn't big enough and we need to make it bigger, we need to improve the quality of players," added Perth.

Outdated

Facilities are also an area where with a recently improved training facility but a clearly outdated stadium, a contrast to the state of the art venue in Slovakia last week.

"You need the local council and the government to give us a dig-out but that's a big ask. We [soccer] are first in terms of participation - but second to GAA in terms of funding," Perth says.

There are other lessons to be learned. Less than a month ago, Jordan Larsson (son of Celtic legend Henrik) played, and scored, for Swedish side Norrkoping in their Europa League win over St Patrick's Athletic.

Last weekend he made his debut for his new club, Spartak Moscow, who paid €4million for the forward while St Pat's would expect to be offere d €40,000 for any of their players, and the best export from this league in the last few years (Sean Maguire) went to the English second tier for a fee of just €125,000.

Is Jordan Larsson 32 times better than Sean Maguire? Clearly not, but Swedish clubs sell players for market prices and League of Ireland players are still in the bargain basement.

"Everyone else is moving on, they are chasing that European money and it's getting harder every year," Perth concluded

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