Tuesday 20 March 2018

Byrne fears talent drain

More European pain for Irish clubs predicted

Player of the month: Jason Byrne
Player of the month: Jason Byrne
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THIS day 10 years ago, Bohemians were coming away from Belarus with a one-goal deficit to BATE Borisov that they would go on to overturn with a 3-0 second-leg victory.

In the next round they took on Rosenborg with a final-round tie against Deportivo La Coruna on offer. Stephen Kenny and the players talked openly of their belief that they could beat the feted Norwegians, but they lost 5-0 on aggregate.

A year later Jason Byrne and Shelbourne did what Bohs couldn't, getting to the final round of qualifying and facing, by chance, Deportivo, who they held for 149 minutes before going down 3-0 on aggregate. That season Bohs sacked Kenny for losing to Levadia Tallinn in the UEFA Cup.

Europe defined these clubs, and they talked of breaking the glass ceiling of the Champions League group stages.

A period of improvement in Europe that started in 2000 with Bohs beating Aberdeen and Shels overcoming Sloga Jugomagnat and continued through to Shamrock Rovers' Europa League adventure in 2011/12 looks like it could be at an end, with the real possibility that no Irish club wins a European tie for the first time since 2002.

St Patrick's Athletic and Drogheda United crashed out of the Europa League last week, while Sligo Rovers and Derry City are huge outsiders in their ties that begin this week.

When he played in Europe with Shels and Bohs, Byrne experienced highs and lows. Now at Bray Wanderers and in a relegation battle, he looks over his shoulder and sees his former clubs below him, and in this era of slashed budgets and part-time players, the 35-year-old can't see a return to the competitiveness on the European stage any time soon.

"Not unless we sort everything out in the league," he said after collecting his sixth Airtricity/Soccer Writers Association of Ireland Player of the Month award for his exploits in June.

"The league is not as competitive as it was years ago – the great games that we had between Shels and Bohs, Rovers, Cork and Derry. Most of the (best) players have gone away – it's easier to get a chance now in England than it was years ago because the wages aren't great and clubs are just taking a chance on players.

"In terms of Europe, I don't think so. They want to look after themselves here first. It's a difficult one for me to talk about, but I do think we're still miles away from where we were."

His thoughts have long left Europe – chasing Brendan Bradley's league goalscoring record is his main aim now. Staying up is the other one, and Bray sit fourth from bottom, five points clear of Bohs and six ahead of Shels.

The Reds have gone for decisive action, parting company with Alan Mathews while Bohs last night followed suit by relieving Aaron Callaghan of his duties.

"Friday against Bohs is a real six-pointer," he said knowing there's little room for sentiment in the relegation battle. "It's important to beat the teams around you. These are massive games for us."

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