Hard lessons to be learned after European campaigns fall short
Managers have to pick themselves up and move on
It is said that you learn more in defeat than in victory, so the respective managers of Dundalk, St Patrick's Athletic, Shamrock Rovers and UCD have had plenty to mull over following their exits from the European scene.
After UCD's gallant defeat to Slovan Bratislava last Thursday, manager Collie O'Neill agreed to give some thought to what he had learned, and duly phoned me back with his very honest conclusions.
"The three things I learned," he said, "were: 1, Our technical ability, physical stature and concentration when not in possession all need to be improved; 2, Our style of play is too predictable. We need to mix it up a little bit, otherwise we make it too easy for teams coming to play us; 3, I've realised that I have a really good bunch of players, who would go through a brick wall for me. I'm fortunate to have the players I have. They don't need a manager, because they have it in themselves to want to be successful."
With a team which included three teenagers, two 20-year-olds, and has an average age of 22, no wonder O'Neill said that he would like to "keep this bunch together for a couple of years," in the belief that they can progress back to the Premier Division and, ultimately, another shot at European football.
UCD qualified through the Fair Play Award, but UEFA have closed this avenue now, which doesn't surprise anyone who has taken note of the governing body's behaviour in the Vitali Rodionov case.
Rodionov is the BATE Borisov player who headbutted Dundalk's Dane Massey in the first leg of their Champions League qualifier. As the incident wasn't spotted by the referee, Dundalk followed the disciplinary procedures laid down to report the incident.
"It was a clear-cut headbutt," said Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny. "Looking at the video, you can see that it was premeditated, very cynical stuff. I don't know how he was allowed to play in the second leg. He even apologised in the hope of limiting his suspension. There was no way he should have played."
Obviously, Fair Play is a foreign concept to UEFA, and courtesy doesn't rate much higher there either. Dundalk received no notification regarding Rodionov's position before Wednesday's game, and had to rely on information that was posted on the BATE website. No wonder PA announcer Michael Duffy wryly commented, as the game ended: "Thank you for your support, and we'll be back for the re-fixture."
Unfortunately, UEFA doesn't admit to its mistakes - and neither does it ensure that the participants in their Champions League are guaranteed a level playing pitch.
The importance of Rodionov to BATE can't be overstated. Belarusian Player of the Year, a top international, he was the pacey striking option that they needed, as their alternative was a slow 6ft 3ins target man, who would have been more easily contained by the Dundalk defence.
Kenny's problems, though, largely stemmed from BATE's decision to pressure Dundalk high up the pitch. "Europeans don't usually do that," he said, "but they did, and we coughed up possession a little bit too cheaply."
As a result, the supply line to lone striker David McMillan didn't function too well. He only had one clear-cut chance, with Ronan Finn putting him through one-on-one, but his effort was too close to the keeper.
Kenny acknowledged their need for another striking option. "We didn't replace Pat Hoban (now with Oxford) and we'll try and have someone by next week. It would have been easier if we had won," he ruefully admitted.
With a big game against Cork City, leaders of the chasing pack, today in Oriel Park (6.0), Kenny hopes to add Ciaran Kilduff (St Patrick's Athletic) to his attack. The former Shamrock Rovers and Cork City striker hasn't had a happy time in Inchicore and a change of scenery might suit all concerned. "I think he has something," said Kenny. If he signs, he will be the first player Dundalk have had to pay a fee for in Kenny's reign.
With his players deeply disappointed at drawing a match they felt they could have won, they have to pick themselves up quickly for this league game against their closest rivals. Kenny has no doubts they will rise to the occasion. "The players are very level-headed," he said. "It's a big game and they know they need to perform again."
Incidentally, UCD also face one of their closest rivals in the race for promotion from the First Division, when they entertain Finn Harps in the Belfield Bowl (7.0). Manager O'Neill is also keen to add to his options in the transfer window. "We need a couple of experienced players who can help manage the team on the pitch," he said, adding that a number of ex-UCD players want to come back.
Sunday Indo Sport