Dundalk eye €1.2m prize as Latvian draw offers opportunity
There's an argument that the bloated rewards available from participation in Europe is allowing the rich clubs in the smaller leagues to become even wealthier.
And the bottom line figures back up that point.
Representatives of Dundalk attended yesterday's first-round draw in Switzerland, knowing they will collect €800,000 from UEFA this year even if they don't win a game.
Europa League participants Cork City, Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick's Athletic collect €240,000 for participation and would need to get through a couple of rounds to earn the kind of money Dundalk will automatically pocket.
The clubs that don't qualify can only dream about cheques of that size. There's a food chain that drives the wedge between teams at domestic level; it's the reason that so many leagues around the continent have been dominated by one club.
Dundalk have won four out of the last five titles and that consistency, allied to their brilliant 2016 run under Stephen Kenny, has eventually earned them seeded status at the first Champions League hurdle.
It's why they received the kindest draw of the four Irish clubs - a two-legged tie with Latvian champions FC Riga. Progression would bank Dundalk a further €400,000 and open even more lucrative doors.
Champions who fail to make the group stages of the main competition get a parachute into Europa League qualifiers - the further a team advances in the main event, the easier the passage is to the secondary competition.
This was essentially the route Dundalk used to gain a €7m ticket to the Europa League groups in 2016.
While Riga have a well-travelled playing squad, with international experience, they are a step down from the likes of BATE Borisov (2015 opponents) or Rosenborg (2017) who were on the same side of the draw as Dundalk this time around.
The Lilywhites are at home first on Wednesday, July 10 with the return seven days later and no expense will be spared in the mission to learn more about a club that was only established in 2015 as an amalgamation of two smaller sides.
Like Dundalk, Riga are midway through a summer season, but there is no break so they are likely to be watched this weekend by Dundalk's opposition scout Stephen O'Donnell.
The Co Louth outfit's American owners were attracted to the club by the 2016 adventure and staff know they will be under pressure to progress in that sphere this term.
"The ambition of the club's owners is to do well in Europe," said Dundalk coach Ruaidhrí Higgins, speaking on the LOI Weekly Podcast. "We're not naive to the fact that they want to get back to group stages of European football, so it's up to us step to the mark.
"I'm not saying that we need to get back to the group stages straight away, but I'm sure they want to see progression."
Higgins says the Dundalk group will not be fazed if they are saddled with being favourites.
"I know this is easy to say but we go into every game expecting to win and this will be no different," he said.
Cork City's regular European qualification gave them seeding status in the first round of the Europa League draw.
They will have to regain their old personality to add to the €240,000. John Cotter's team face the winner of the tie between Cardiff University and Luxembourg's Progres Niederkorn.
The latter are the likely opposition and their country has improved at this level with a Progres win over Rangers, and Dudelange's progression to the group stages 12 months ago, illustrating that point.
St Patrick's Athletic and Shamrock Rovers were unseeded, so they were always likely to be dealt tough ties.
Rovers' manager Stephen Bradley felt there were sterner tests than SK Brann. They will travel to Norway for a July 11 clash, with the decider in Tallaght on July 18.
Saints supremo Harry Kenny has acknowledged they will need to improve performance levels if they are to unsettle Sweden's IFK Norrkoping.
The Saints were also drawn away first, but competition rules led to a switch so they will now be at home on the night that the Hoops are in Norway. There's more activity today in Switzerland as all four clubs will find out their possible opponents in the next round.
Dundalk cannot afford to be complacent, but their hierarchy will be very interested by the permutations. Their domestic counterparts have work to do before they can think about it.
For the full LOI Weekly discussion on the European draws go to independent.ie/podcasts or search LOI Weekly on Apple Podcasts