Poisoned chalice or holy grail?
The European dream is not as clear-cut for some Irish clubs, writes Daniel McDonnell
Published 22/06/2009 | 00:00
THIS morning in Switzerland, a mere 26 days after the Champions League showdown between Barcelona and Manchester United, the European trail starts again.
For the representatives of the sides who converge at UEFA headquarters in Nyon at this juncture, reaching the final stages of such competitions is something they can only dream about.
In many cases, the ambition is to simply cross the first hurdle and anything after that is a real bonus. Certainly, the four Irish sides that will learn their European fate come firmly into that category.
They have different crosses to bear, with Europe more important to some than others. A winnable tie is the main priority, but the cost and logistics of travel mean that a favourable location is paramount as well. In short, the way in which the balls roll this morning could have significant ramifications for the rest of their seasons, although they are reluctant to admit as much.
"I wouldn't be saying that our future or our season depends on what draw we get," says Bohemians secretary Gerry Conway, "But it could make a big difference."
It's the fate of Bohs that will be of most interest. The extent of their financial difficulties is well known, with a transfer embargo currently in place due to overspending on players with their debts running into seven figures. Cost-cutting measures lie on the horizon pretty much regardless of what happens, but a bit of a run in Europe could considerably alleviate the burden.
They deny they have budgeted for success in Europe this term, but manager Pat Fenlon has gone on record to state he is in no doubt that progressing through a round is a priority, whereas in the past -- at his respective clubs -- that hasn't really been the case.
"We need to get revenue into the club," he said, "That's the bottom line."
Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against Bohemians getting a favourable draw. Without getting into the muddling world of co-efficients and rankings, the Gypsies have been both lucky and unlucky in the restructuring of the early rounds of the two major competitions this year.
The good news is that due to improved Irish performances in Europe in recent years, the league's standing has risen to such an extent that Bohs now get a bye past the first qualifying round, which guarantees them another €130,000 on top of the €200,000 they receive simply for being domestic champions.
Alas, the bad news is that because Bohs have been out of the main European tournaments since 2004, their individual club ranking is low. Therefore, instead of being seeded for the second qualifying round -- which Derry or St Patrick's Athletic would have been -- they are top of the unseeded participants.
Those clubs who win second qualifying round ties get another bonus of €130,000 plus the guarantee that even if they lose against a big gun at the next stage, they receive the significant consolation of being parachuted into the new Europa League -- which has replaced the UEFA Cup -- at the final qualifying round in that tournament with €90,000 more in the coffers and a shot at making the group stages.
Put simply, there is a serious prize at stake for Bohemians if they can win just one tie but they are very likely to be placed against difficult opposition.
"The irony of it," says Conway, "is that if Liechenstein had a team in the Champions League, then that would be one more team and then we would be seeded in the second qualifying round.
"We have 17 possible opponents and there's split opinions over how many of them are beatable."
That bracket includes the champions of Lithuania, Iceland and Finland. On the flip side, nightmare opposition would include FC Copenhagen, Levski Sofia or Partizan Belgrade.
"Making it through a round would mean a lot to us," continues Conway, "yet when it comes to Europe you always have to factor in other things. For example, it can have a negative impact on your progress in domestic competitions, like the league or the Setanta Cup, which are worth a lot of money in themselves if you win them."
Indeed, it would be unwise to think that a good run in Europe guarantees substantial profit. Even those clubs who engaged in high-profile ties over the last couple of years learned that to their cost.
The joy of taking on Dynamo Kiev was tempered for Drogheda United by the significant costs of travelling to the Ukraine, and if you try to do things properly -- like the Louthmen did -- by going over a few days in advance, then it's a costly business.
St Patrick's Athletic, who await their Europa League fate today, know all about that. Last year, they did alright financially from their fine UEFA Cup sojourn which was brought to an end by Hertha Berlin.
Nevertheless, CEO Richie Sadlier does not believe that Europe is the be-all and end-all, particularly in the grim times we live in. The Saints made widespread cost-cutting measures off the park ahead of this season, and will be taking a parsimonious approach with their European preparations as well.
"We did things properly last year, in terms of travelling away a few days before games and, don't get me wrong, it was the right thing to do," says Sadlier, "But I don't think we'll be doing that this year because we have to keep expenses down.
"A lot of money in Europe last year went towards player bonuses as well so we've had to look at that as well."
Due to impressive showings in recent years, the Saints receive a bye through the first qualifying round of the Europa League -- in the new format there are four rounds before the group stages -- and they are seeded in the second stage.
Although there are a few banana skins, mainly from the emerging and newer nations, Jeff Kenna's charges should land a tie where they will have reasonable prospects of progressing despite their league struggles this term.
It's the same for Derry City, who are on the same side of the draw as the Saints. With a €90,000 reward for each hurdle scaled in the Europa League, and potential third round opponents like Roma, PSV Eindhoven, Athletic Bilbao and Fulham, then there are lucrative possibilities.
Right now, though, it's all hypothetical, and with the European business for Irish clubs this year set to coincide with the glamorous presence of Real Madrid on these shores and other high-profile UK visitors, then Sadlier is unsure which scenario is rosiest.
"We can't invite teams over from the UK for friendlies at the moment because, rightly, the FAI wouldn't give us permission to play on a weekend, and we have European games during the week," he says, "so we are missing out on what other clubs are enjoying there.
"Of course, if the results are good, Europe can be worth something but the sheer scale of organising games once you progress can be a drain on resources if you're a small club. I remember walking onto the pitch last year after we beat Elfsborg (of Sweden) and the buzz in Richmond Park was the best since I've been there.
"Johnny McDonnell (then manager) said to me, 'Richie, you can smile now', but in the back of my head I was thinking about what a job organising the next game was going to be because we couldn't play at home after that stage. There are a lot of things to factor in.
"And I think it's a myth that success from Europe can have a knock-on effect. Last year, after we lost against Hertha Berlin, there was a slump in attendances after that. In our next five league games at home, there wasn't any more than 850 people at any of them."
That's the bigger picture, and for those clubs who have been regular participants in European competition over the past few years, the novelty value has been replaced by pragmatism. Ironically enough, the raising of the bar in terms of results means that the bigger clubs cannot take for granted that there will be an increased attendance because of the status of the competition. A bizarre price of limited success, you might say.
For Sligo Rovers, it's a little bit different. They enter the European arena for the first time this decade, having watched from afar as others flew the flag. Due to their lowly status, the Bit O'Red, are in at the first qualifying round of the Europa League, but the league's ranking means they are at least seeded.
They won't have much time to plan their adventure, considering the first leg of their tie will take place on Thursday week.
However, capitalising on the buzz of European football returning to the Showgrounds, they have already sold tickets for the home leg despite the identity of the opposition or the date of the game not being decided until this morning. "Our capacity is restricted to 2,700," says treasurer Fergal Keaveney, "and there's been healthy interest in that already.
"It was a boost to us for the Showgrounds to get the green light, because otherwise the costs would have stacked up.
"We don't want a long journey but whatever happens, I think we'll make a profit from Europe and if we get through the first round then it will be even better. We're not like other clubs, in that we didn't go budgeting for cup runs or anything like that.
"Getting to a League Cup semi-final is a boost for us, and going through a round in Europe would be the same."
Considering the financial difficulties the westerners have struggled through in the past two years, it's a welcome respite -- the kind which qualifying to represent your country on this stage was always supposed to represent.
Yet the harsh economic climate has raised the stakes, and ensured that a certain amount of innocence has been lost. Be under no illusions -- this is about much more than taking part.