Saturday 17 August 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'Swift action needed if Irish sides want to keep up with Euro rivals'

Dundalk head coach Vinny Perth. Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile
Dundalk head coach Vinny Perth. Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The fine margins of knockout football must be taken into consideration before results for Irish clubs in Europe are used to construct an argument about the state of the League of Ireland.

Off-days can happen for teams, in the same way that cup shocks happen at domestic level. Perspective can be lost. But, over time, trends tend to hint at the reality.

And it would be hard for any of the protagonists involved in the ongoing debate around the direction of the game to argue that Irish clubs are making giant strides collectively.

The hope is that Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers will do the business this week to create some good vibes, but St Patrick's Athletic and Cork City look doomed at the halfway point in their ties.

And while the performances of those protagonists might be falling in line with league table positions - with Dundalk and Rovers well clear at the top - it's the issue of strength in depth that should concern all.

Especially as it's clear that other countries are in no mood to stand still.

Dundalk are still fancied to get the job done in the second leg of their Champions League tie with Riga.

Yet there's a fear that the gulf between top and bottom of the League of Ireland - a problem which has essentially been created by European money - is having a negative impact on the Lilywhites too because they aren't getting high-level tests on a regular enough basis.

Vinny Perth's side have taken control of the title race with a run of 13 wins in 15 matches, yet they were sluggish in the first leg.

The Lilywhites were hammered 4-0 by Cypriot side Larnaca in last year's Europa League during a run of 16 league wins in 17 matches.

Latvia's league is a bit of a basket case, but their Europa League sides all performed well last Thursday.

Rovers have pushed Dundalk this year and their improvement was evident in their 2-2 away to Norwegian side Brann last Thursday which gives them an excellent chance of progression. Home losses for the Saints and Cork have left them goosed. The Saints were unseeded and clear outsiders when they landed Sweden's IFK Norrkopping.

The real shocker was seeded Cork's abject defeat to Luxembourg's Progres Niederkorn.

Cork have been appalling this year, while football in Luxembourg has clearly improved since Dundalk (2014) and Shamrock Rovers and UCD (2015) dismissed teams from that parish. Dudelange reached the Europa League group stages 12 months ago.

Still, the reality is that Progres are in pre-season and only crept past a Welsh university side in the preliminary round. Whatever their current issues, a full-time Cork operation in the middle of their campaign should be posing more problems.

There are players who were involved in the league during the mid to late 2000s who would argue that the overall standard was stronger at that juncture.

While there was no major breakthrough a la Shamrock Rovers in 2011 or Dundalk in 2016, the point is that the consistent standard of European results was higher as domestic competition was more intense.

Struggling

Consider the fact that - a decade ago - a struggling St Patrick's Athletic team were able to eliminate a side from Russia.

Between the years of 2004 and 2009, teams from Croatia, Cyprus, Scotland and Sweden (three times) were also knocked out by Irish sides. Drogheda (Dynamo Kiev) and Bohemians (Red Bull Salzburg) were inches away from massive wins too.

The crucial caveat is that those boom times results were achieved by unsustainable operations.

After picking up the pieces from the crash, the top flight is now majority full-time again, albeit with clubs remaining unsure about how to make it viable.

With another reform of UEFA competitions seemingly around the corner, this is an important window.

The weekend workshop with Kieran Lucid and Niall Quinn suggests there is a desire to listen to new ideas. Caution is understandable, but Irish football was already playing catch-up. We will be overtaken by more nations unless assertive action is taken.

Irish Independent

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