European adventurers face battle against the Odds
Dundalk, UCD and Shamrock Rovers all face stern tests abroad
The age of miracles is not past, as 10-man UCD proved in Luxembourg last Thursday, but it will take another miracle if League of Ireland involvement in European competition is to extend beyond July.
The Europa League has been the focus of attention up to now, but Dundalk step into the Champions League arena on Wednesday when they travel to Belarus to take on BATE Borisov. In five of the last seven seasons, BATE have qualified for the group stages of either the Champions League or the Europa League, and they number Bayern Munich and Athletic Bilbao among the teams they have beaten, so Dundalk are really up against it.
Ronan Finn, who was on the Shamrock Rovers team which set the benchmark for all League of Ireland clubs by qualifying for the Europa League group stages in 2011, believes that Dundalk are a stronger, fitter team than that Hoops side. "Once we get it right tactically, we are capable of getting a result against BATE," he said.
Regarding tactics, they have the right man at the helm, as Stephen Kenny has enjoyed his share of European success in the past, principally with Derry City. However, BATE seem a step too far even for the shrewd Tallaght man.
UCD's reward for their heroics is a tough tie against Slovan Bratislava, and they will be doing well to keep this tie alive for the return leg in the Belfield Bowl. Still, we wrote them off last week, and they surprised us, so maybe they can surprise us one more time.
Cork City's inability to hold on to a 1-0 lead against 10-man KR Reykjavik must count as the biggest disappointment of the round. It also calls into question manager John Caulfield's judgement in leaving his ace attacker and leading scorer Billy Dennehy behind for disciplinary reasons.
The golden rule for managers is to select the best team available, and that means including players you wouldn't otherwise want to have anything to do with. No doubt Caulfield was right to discipline Dennehy, but it shouldn't have been at the expense of his team.
The classic case, of course, is the Mick McCarthy-Roy Keane saga, where McCarthy held his tongue and kept selecting Keane despite their differences. Then, when his patience was about to get its reward, he finally lost it - and with it the chance of beating 10-man Spain and possibly making the World Cup semi-finals. That episode goes down as the biggest 'What if' in Irish sports history. Cork City's exit might be remembered in a similar vein, but it is all part of a learning curve.
After St Patrick's Athletic's exit to Skonto Riga, Shamrock Rovers have Dublin to themselves this week for their first leg tie against Odds BK of Norway.
The three Dublin clubs, for their first leg ties, attracted a total of 6,679 spectators, with the Hoops at 3,250 the best supported. In a city of 1.25m, that indicates that soccer in Dublin is a sleeping giant. Hopefully, the fans will awake from their slumber for this week's game.
Odds, incidentally, have one thing in common with Shamrock Rovers - they have won their Cup more often than any other club. And, like Rovers, who have gone 29 seasons since their 24th triumph, Odds have gone 15 seasons since their record 12th win.
On a whimsical note, Pavlovs Dog was in action in the Europa League games in Dublin last week. Shamrock Rovers got the better of the Dog, who was playing centre-back for Niederkorn, but St Pat's didn't test often enough the unthinking reflexes of Pavlovs, who was in goal for Skonto Riga.
If you're looking for a game-breaker in this week's games, look no further than a former Bray Wanderers' player. Ryan Swan, who scored UCD's goals, David Webster and Kieran Marty Waters, who scored Shamrock Rovers' goals, and the Hoops' man of the match Gary McCabe, are all former Bray players, while Dundalk have Brian Gartland, Dane Massey and Chris Shields (all ex-Seasiders) in their ranks.
Bray appear to have surpassed UCD as the League's most prolific nursery. It's sad then, that the club, in its present incarnation, appears to be in so much turmoil.
Finally, on a monetary note, the rewards for European involvement have increased significantly this season, and representatives of UCD and St Pat's respectively, informed me that, despite the high cost of travel and hotels at this time of the year, they expect to clear €130,000 and €150,000 from their €200,000 UEFA first round prize money. As the St Pat's clubman commented: "It's a lot better than when it was €90,000 a round."
Sunday Indo Sport