Russell: We can't go out with a Bang'
Midfielder warns Sligo to avoid an early Euro exit ahead of FC Banga showdown in Lithuania
IF 2013 was the year of pain for Irish clubs in Europe, Sligo Rovers midfielder John Russell hopes that this summer will be the year of progress.
Last term, all four Irish sides exited Europe at the first hurdle, the first time since 1999 that all of our Euro representatives flopped.
There have already been some good signs for this season, Dundalk winning their away leg against Jeuinesse Esch of Luxembourg 2-0 on Tuesday and now all three clubs in the Europa League - Dundalk, Derry City and St Pats - will feel confident of advancing to the second qualifying round, though Inchicore men face a major challenge in the Champions League against Legia Warsaw.
Sligo are away to Lithuanian side FC Banga in Gargzdai today (4pm Irish time) and a clash with a team from the Baltic states brings back bad memories for midfielder Russell, who was part of a St Pats side disappointingly knocked out by Zalgiris Vilnius 12 months ago.
"Players know what's at stake in Europe, you know that you are representing your country," says Russell.
"It's one of the perks of being in the League of Ireland, getting to play in Europe and fly the flag for Ireland a bit.
"It was a knock for the league to see all four teams get knocked out so early last year, people outside of the league are always looking to knock it, and the four clubs all losing out in the first round was a stick to beat the league with.
"If we can get a few results this season it will give everyone a lift. We are all proud, the players and supporters, we all want to succeed in Europe. I know we have a good product but to people outside of the league we need to show that by doing well in European competition.
"There are no guarantees but ourselves, Dundalk and Derry have had decent draws. Now it's up to the players to do the work and get through," added Russell.
"I have been fortunate to play in Europe before, in my first spell with Sligo and then two seasons with St Pats.
"The big thing for players and clubs in Ireland is to not have that inferiority complex, especially in the early rounds. We are good enough to be going through, though none of the clubs did that last season.
"It's about showing the opposition, and the competition, respect but in the right way.
"I think managers of Irish teams in Europe show too much respect, they start changing tactics and formation, change the way you play and that can be hard to implement over two games.
"If we go out and play the way we can but keep the ball, we can do well here and get into the next round."
Russell played in his third European campaign last summer but it was a major disappointment as his St Patrick's Athletic side lost out at the first-round stage.
Pats thought they had done the hard work by earning a 2-2 draw in the away leg but Liam Buckley's side failed at home.
"Vilnius last year was definitely a game that we left behind us. We got a good result over in Lithuania, coming home with away goals after a 2-2 draw. So to lose at Richmond Park was hard to take," Russell admitted.
"Travel was an issue for us that year, we had a real trek to get home from Vilnius, I think we had a seven-hour stopover in London on the way home and you had lads lying on benches in the terminal trying to get a bit of sleep, we went straight into a league game at the weekend and then had to prepare for Europe again.
"We were a bit naïve tactically in the home leg. They sat in, let us play and then hit us on the break. They scored twice against us. So you have to be prepared for that and not get caught on the break.
"Hopefully I can pass on my experience of playing against that Lithuanian side last season. I don't think that Banga will be better than us technically or tactically, I feel we will be better technically."
Sligo had hoped to charter a plane to Lithuania for tonight's game - as they did for last year's Champions League trip to Norway - but insufficient interest among supporters saw that ruled out, so the squad had to travel on scheduled flights, via London.
"The travel is not ideal. You'd love to have the luxury of a charter flight and then be able to fly straight home after the game instead of spending all day Friday on the road, but that's life in the league now.
"Maybe 10 years ago clubs would have been able to charter a plane without a bother but the money isn't there and supporters can't afford to travel in the numbers they used to. Hopefully we can just get a good result out here and finish off the job at home next week."
Apart from the fact that he is only two weeks into his job as Sligo boss, John Coleman (pictured left) has to battle with a horrendous injury list, evident in the fact that Rovers had only four subs on the bench for their last league game.
"We have a few injuries at the moment and we don't have the biggest squad at Sligo, but we have prepared as best we can and we had good result in the league last weekend under the new manager.
"We are getting players back, Gavin Peers and Jeff Henderson are on the way but this game may be too soon. We just have to deal with it and it's an opportunity for younger lads to try and do well."
While Sligo have been a success domestically, they have persistently flopped in Europe. Tonight they take on a side who are new to UEFA business and FA Banga have only ever played in Europe once before, losing 7-0 to Albanian opposition last year.