Daniel McDonnell: 'Dundalk and Celtic must evolve to remain relevant on the European stage'
THE two clubs are worlds apart under pretty much every heading, but the players and supporters of Celtic and Dundalk felt similar feelings of disappointment on Tuesday night.
European football is capable of delivering them a level of pain that they simply don’t experience on their own patch. Celtic shipped four goals at home to Romania’s Cluj to exit the Champions League in chaotic fashion
Dundalk were already in bother heading into the second leg of their Europa League tie with Slovan Bratislava, but they rarely concede three goals on Irish soil.
They have struggled to adjust to the jump in quality, which might just be a diplomatic way of saying they’re not up to it.
Knee-jerk reactions to one game are dangerous, but six matches is a fair measure of a team and it can be said that Vinny Perth’s men haven’t played above themselves, which is what Irish sides need to do.
All four representatives are out of the picture now, with Shamrock Rovers’ win over Norwegian side SK Brann the stand-out of a vanilla year which confirmed that it’s unrealistic to expect much more from the league in its current state.
St Pat’s and Cork are miles off Dundalk and Rovers, so expecting them to make a dent in Europe was fanciful. The collective standards must rise.
Celtic’s situation is different in the sense that they will feel they have drastically underperformed. Cluj are a much smaller operation.
The criticism aimed at the decision-makers is borne from the belief that they have become complacent due to their strength in Scotland.
So while they might operate in a completely different stratosphere to Dundalk – they just sold Kieran Tierney to Arsenal for £25m – the basic point is that clubs which dominate at home still have to evolve and improve to keep up with the European pace.
For all that Rangers are improving under Steven Gerrard, Celtic should still have the power to collect a ninth league title in a row.
The Hoops still have a great opportunity to make the Europa League groups, although Rangers are in the shake-up for involvement there too and that competitive edge should benefit Celtic.
They might actually have to work for this title after a succession of facile victories; perhaps losing one will prompt a proper shopping spree. The authorities at Celtic will say that they have tried to run a prudent model when they don’t have the cushion of a Premier League-style TV deal.
But the crowds they generate would suggest that the Hoops can afford to speculate with a view to accumulating.
For Dundalk, the situation is more complicated. Last winter was the first time that they managed to avoid the departure of a key player on a free transfer. Their US owners moved to tie down their leading lights on long-term deals.
The question now, ironically enough, is if these players are actually good enough to bring the club to the next level.
The language around Dundalk has been changed by the American takeover, borne from the suspicion that impatience will kick in if they don’t see immediate European returns.
Sources close to the ownership group strenuously deny that this will be the case, but they will have to suffer through that scepticism. Improvements to supporter facilities at Oriel Park would buy them some credit.
Suggestions that they haven’t put money into the club already are not based on fact. Salary Cost Protocol (SCP) dictates that wages can only be 65 per cent of turnover and it’s understood that the Dundalk hierarchy had to pump in somewhere in the ballpark of €1m last year, largely to ensure that they stayed within those rules.
This isn’t a loan; licensing doesn’t allow that so it’s classified as Corporate & Private Sponsorship. Dundalk still have a decent portion of their 2016 money in the bank, so they aren’t paying their way by dipping into those savings either.
It’s likely the Americans will have to search their pockets again this year for SCP purposes, a further spend on top of the €500k they have put into behind-the-scenes facilities for players.
The lesson of the last six weeks is that they will have to invest in new players again, too.
It would be naive to suggest that they can keep repeating this cycle without any return; and it would be reckless to break the bank with a view to a European campaign that is vulnerable to the luck of the draw. But the planned introduction of a third European competition from 2021 is on the radar, too.
What’s clear is that they need to be more creative in terms of their recruitment. They have fielded all-Irish teams against opponents with a diverse array of nationalities.
It’s a balancing act. The boom and bust cycle of the League of Ireland a decade ago was defined by wages increasing and standards remaining the same.
Rather than inflating the salaries of the best players currently in Ireland, Dundalk may have to look further afield even if it means losing a player or two to a rival.
Hard decisions beckon. In a changing football world, those who stand still will be overtaken.