The European vicious circle
With Ireland's four clubs crashing out of Europe at the first hurdle for the first time since 1999, the vital revenue streams provided by these competitions are in danger of slipping out of reach
AS the bus carrying the victorious Trabzonspor players was serenaded by a rabid bunch of travelling fans while it pulled out of the Brandywell last Thursday evening, Declan Devine sought to apply context to a result that was noteworthy for all the wrong reasons.
Understandably, the Derry City manager was proud of how his team had performed over the two legs of their Europa League clash with the Turkish giants, with a 7-2 aggregate loss a bitter pill to swallow considering they were still in the tie with 45 minutes remaining.
The bigger picture, however, is that the Candystripes' exit meant that all four Irish clubs had fallen out of Europe at the first hurdle, a whitewash that last occurred in 1999. Much of the positivity regarding playing improvements in the domestic game this century has centred on performances in that sphere, for it is the main barometer of measuring progress.
Now, the curve is heading in the opposite direction, with the benefits of summer soccer seemingly cancelled out by the loss of the professionalism that initially accompanied the change of the seasons.
The increased quality of European displays failed to attract more spectators to games on a regular basis and with income failing to cover expenditure on players, post-recession cutbacks were inevitable. Now the impact is finally becoming apparent.
"Expectations have to be realistic," says Devine, who assumed the top job at Brandywell after stints as assistant to Stephen Kenny that included a memorable European run in 2006 that was only halted by Paris Saint-Germain.
"We've played a team there that spends enough on wages in one year that would run our club for 10. Their wage bill would build us a new stadium. We have players getting paid the minimum amount of money and we're expecting them to compete with millionaires. Our boys get paid for 40 weeks and have to look for work the rest of the time.
"If we want to progress then we have to make sure the players are looked after for 52 weeks, but not to the detriment of the clubs," he continues, before adding pointedly: "Because when we were competing well in Europe, clubs were going to the wall on a regular basis."
Is Europe important? It's a pertinent question to ask when pragmatism is preached. At the recent FAI AGM, with no positive results on the pitch to trumpet, the good vibe attached to the Airtricity League was the number of players it had produced for the senior international squad. However, the current financial picture around the league makes it clear that clubs have barely profited from it; when short contracts are the norm, it's impossible to seek a large transfer fee.
Derry did well from the sale of James McClean and there are high hopes that the production line will continue to churn out quality with Barry McNamee and Michael Duffy making waves this term, but they are the exception to the rule. "We're a developing club," stresses Devine. "If we have to sell players on, we'll do that, but we want to be successful too."
For the ambitious clubs who want to jump a level, European runs are a necessity as they provide revenue that simply cannot be generated on their own doorstep.
Shamrock Rovers missed out completely this year, a product of the troubles that followed the Europa League breakthrough in 2011. They received in excess of €1.5m from UEFA for doing so and, while costs ate into the figure, their flirtation with the promised land opened their eyes to the riches that exist.
Last November, they were down in the dumps at the prospect of missing out on the 2013 party. Then, an unexpected fax dropped in from UEFA HQ. It informed the Hoops that a substantial six-figure sum would be coming their way, a belated cut of additional extra TV and marketing pool money from the 2011/2012 Europa League pot. "A year on, we were still reaping the benefits of it," admits chairman Jonathan Roche. "The figure is probably more than some of the clubs made this year from Europe."
Nevertheless, he acknowledges that the Hoops have to get back in. "Europe is vital," he stresses. "It affects everything, in terms of the budget and missing out again would affect our thinking 100pc.
"UEFA are in good health and the money is creeping up. One round of the Europa League is worth €120,000 and we're lucky enough that a home gate would probably cover the costs. So it's massive."
Indeed, the discrepancy in prize money between 180 minute achievements in Europe and season long endeavours at home is striking. The reward from the FAI for winning the title is €100,000; the real value is the Champions League money that follows afterwards. Sligo Rovers lost to Molde at the first hurdle, but will still pick up €375,000 from UEFA as part of a divvy up among league winners from around the continent who fail to make the group stages.
For a team who gets past that first hurdle, the dividends start to multiply. Success against Molde would have secured another €350,000 for Sligo and at least four more games – a third round Champions League qualifier and then a Europa League play-off in the event of defeat there, the path by which the Hoops progressed two years ago with Partizan Belgrade ousted at the latter stage.
"Winning the league is everything," says Roche. "The access to the Champions League money is huge. There's no point talking about the Champions League group stages now.
"The first little hurdle is to get through one Champions League tie every year; that's achievable for the Irish champions. If you can win that round and do it for a few years, you can build and build."
Nevertheless, he acknowledges that the variable which can make it more difficult is the gradual emergence of stronger teams from nations who are improving. BATE Borisov of Belarus, who were beaten by Bohemians in 2003 and improved to become Champions League regulars, are the popular example. Last week, they were surprisingly dumped out of this year's renewal by Kazakhstan's Shakhtar Karagandy, an outfit that St Patrick's Athletic eliminated from the Europa League two years ago.
New forces from the former Soviet states are coming to the fore on account of rich businessman throwing in large amounts of money; Irish football was stung when clubs, built on the largesse of a few, were hit by the impact of the recession, so it's hardly a model to strive towards. It just happens that on the other side of the continent, a select few have deeper pockets.
"We've got to remember that everyone else is improving as well," warns St Patrick's Athletic full-back Ger O'Brien. "We're a little bit standstill, if not going a bit backwards. Most other countries are progressing."
Owen Heary captained the Shelbourne team that broke new ground in 2004 by coming within touching distance of the Champions League in that famous showdown with Deportivo La Coruna. He does not believe that another team will come close any time soon, arguing that even if a select few clubs at the top continue to plough resources towards success, they will be dragged down by the overall decline in standard across the league.
"Sligo might have a strong team, but if they're not playing against good opposition week in, week out it'll hurt when you come into Europe," he stresses. "In those days at Shels, Cork were strong, so were Bohs, Derry. You had a good standard week in, week out which helped when you were going into Europe.
"It's a bit like Celtic last year; they had a great Champions League run, but, over the course of the season, they struggled because the opposition they faced every week didn't prepare them."
THE caveat that should be attached to this miserable July is that the upward graph meant that Sligo Rovers and Derry City entered at the second round stage.
Northern Ireland will score higher on the co-efficient this year on account of three wins secured by Linfield, but two of those came in the first qualifying stage against opposition from the Faroe Islands.
Drogheda United were unseeded in that round and therefore landed a formidable Malmo side that went on to destroy Pat Fenlon's hapless Hibernian 9-0 over two legs. Given their league struggles, Mick Cooke's charges performed well.
St Patrick's Athletic, on the other hand, were seeded and landed Zalgiris Vilnius, a tricky side compared to the alternatives. After doing the hard work by drawing 2-2 in Lithuania, they folded disappointingly at home. Zalgiris defeated Armenian opposition Pyunik in the second qualifying round, which illustrates they were no mugs, but the sense of disappointment lingers in Inchicore.
"If I'm being honest, we will be looked upon as the failure of the year," admits O'Brien. "The others received unkind draws. We could have won our tie, but didn't show up on the night."
UEFA's ranking of countries is built on performances over the last five seasons. Although Shamrock Rovers' 2011 feat is the most notable individual achievement of the modern era, 2008 was the big performing year in terms of co-efficient with a score of 2.5 achieved. This year's results amount to a paltry 0.25 which is on course to be the lowest for any of the 53 leagues in Europe this season.
As '08 is removed from the calculations for 2014, the League of Ireland is set to drop to 41st in the rankings ahead of 2014. Individual clubs with a good record can be rated higher on account of their own performances, with Roche pointing out that the Hoops and St Patrick's Athletic would have a reasonable chance of Champions League second round seeding next year if they claimed the title.
Still, the 2009 results were decent, meaning that the 2014 representatives simply have to start winning next year or a further slump is inevitable.
"That's the concern," says O'Brien. "If you find yourselves on the other side of the draw all the time, it's going to get harder and harder."
With the age profile of the league dropping, boys have to become men quickly and, when they do, the better ones tend to pack their bags. Marquee names like Seamus Coleman and James McClean are the poster boys of recent years, but youngsters with that ability will always leave. The real exodus involved a large group of twentysomethings a level below that pair, who are operating in the lower leagues in England because they can earn a full-time living from the game there, on less money than what some LOI clubs were paying when one-upmanship steadily drove wages up to the completely unsustainable 2008 level.
"Five years ago, it was attractive for lads to stay at home unless they got a really good offer from the top divisions in England," says Heary. "There's no question that the core of young lads in the league now will be better than five years ago. But it's harder to keep them. It's an easy decision for them to go away; it comes down to finance."
In Irish football, from the top down, that's always the bottom line. Annual post mortems are dominated by chicken and egg type scenarios.
To succeed in Europe you need big money; the quickest way of finding that cash is by succeeding in Europe. The equation may be simple, but the fear is that the solution is in danger of slipping away completely.