Thursday 14 December 2017

Don't knock the bandwagon jumpers - the League of Ireland's future depends on them

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Eamonn Sweeney

The immediate emotions at the end of Dundalk's Champions League play-off first-leg tie against Legia Warsaw could not be other than disappointment and frustration. Nothing is impossible in football but it seems likely that the 2-0 defeat has put qualification for the group stages beyond the reach of Stephen Kenny's side.

However, a bit of the old mature reflection yielded some reasons to be cheerful. For one thing, fears that the League of Ireland side would be outclassed proved to be unfounded. The home side were undone by an extremely harsh penalty, so harsh in fact that Stephen Kenny (right) is to be commended for his forbearance in not dashing off an irate tweet to Lech Walesa, and a last-gasp sucker-punch. But this was transparently a contest of equals.

Legia's team may have been studded with internationals who earn many times what the Dundalk players eke out from their trade, but a casual observer would have been hard put to tell which team was which. Dundalk earned an equal share of possession, played the same style of passing football, never came under sustained pressure and had enough chances to get something from the game. The good impression created in the home leg against BATE Borisov was largely confirmed.

This was important because the 30,147 attendance suggests that the crowd contained plenty of people who wouldn't normally find themselves supporting a League of Ireland club. Nobody really knew if this fixture would catch the public imagination but it evidently did. The Irish football public let down neither Dundalk nor the league.

So rather than indulge in the usual bemoaning of the fact that only a minority of that crowd will take in a League of Ireland match any time soon, it's more helpful to focus on the fact that Dundalk's run has revealed a latent affection out there for the League of Ireland.

Rather than berating potential converts for spurning the joys of Longford Town and Wexford Youths, we should be encouraged by the fact that they turned up in sufficient numbers to make the match in the Aviva the fifth best supported out of the ten play-off games. On the night, Dundalk attracted considerably more fans than the likes of Villarreal, Dinamo Zagreb and FC Copenhagen.

Given that Legia are not exactly a marquee draw, this bodes well for the three Europa League home ties which seem to lie in Dundalk's future. Fixtures like these can contribute to a painstaking incremental growth in League of Ireland attendances. The key now is to ensure that at least one club a season can provide them.

It's not an impossible ask. Prior to this season the conventional wisdom was that the league's chances of being competitive in Europe had disappeared when the Celtic Tiger bit the dust and put an end to the big spending epitomised by the Shelbourne and Bohemians teams of that era. But Dundalk have shown what can be achieved on a relatively modest budget, and the money they have accumulated on their epic run can, if wisely deployed, help them get back into that position.

The next step is for other clubs to emulate Dundalk's progress. Cork City weren't a million miles away this season, a properly managed Shamrock Rovers have the potential to return to the Europa League group stages, while Sligo Rovers, resurgent under new boss Dave Robertson, Derry City and St Patrick's Athletic should all be encouraged by the achievement of the Lilywhites.

If you're a Dundalk fan offended by my premature banishment of the club to the Europa League, I apologise. I'm sure Stephen Kenny is still thinking of how a miracle escape might be engineered in Warsaw and casting his mind back to the memorable away win against Hajduk Split two seasons ago. Who knows?

However, chances are that Dundalk will end up in the secondary competition, where they'd have a chance to make history by notching the win, or even draw, which eluded Shamrock Rovers under Michael O'Neill. Going on the evidence of this season, they're eminently capable of doing so. They may even be capable of making a run at qualification for the knockout stages. That's how good Dundalk have been in Europe this year. One desperate decision by a German referee and one lapse of concentration doesn't change that.

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