Monday 18 December 2017

Dundalk’s dream run in Europe will never be the norm for disadvantaged domestic league

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Even before the draws for this summer's major European club competitions were made, Cork City manager John Caulfield tempered the Irish sporting public's understandable anticipation that anyone, either his own runaway league leaders, or last season's fairytale success story, Dundalk, could hope to stage a repeat.

"Being blunt, the European reaction was over the top last year. People thinking teams can get to the group stages again are way off the mark," he said.

The subsequent pairings have vividly amplified his caution.

Despite Dundalk's wonderful run in Europe, six years after Shamrock Rovers navigated a similar run via a subtly different route, the SSE Airtricity League's ranking in European football has slumped during that time.

Now ranked 38th of the 55 competing countries, they were 29th in 2010; neither Rovers nor Dundalk, the two teams to reach the Europa League group stages in that time, are nearly as strong as the squads that preceded them.

"To think teams can get to group stages again, I think people are way off the mark," adds Caulfield.

Cork City manager John Caulfield toasts a European win. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Cork City manager John Caulfield toasts a European win. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

"When teams achieve things like that, they are in the spotlight and then they are losing players and you are not going to be stronger the next time around."

Stephen Kenny managed to stall the bleeding during successive league retentions but, as their form demonstrates this term, the haemorrhaging of players, combined with injuries to key men, has overwhelmed them.

They have their injured players back but the three key off-season departures remain irreplaceable.

When Dundalk accumulated their millions last term, many feared - while others may have hoped - that they would forge a dominant hegemony that would allow the domestic league to steadily improve their - and the league's - European standing.

Much, indeed, like Rosenborg, their Norwegian opponents in round two qualifying for the Champions League, once did from a similar environment.

It is 20 years since they famously defeated AC Milan in the San Siro to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

That was only a few seasons after their domestic league was professionalised in a much more coherent fashion than any attempts to do so here.

Rosenborg's decline, domestically and then in Europe, was all relative - after all, they drew with Chelsea and won both ties against Valencia as recently as 2007. But struggles on and off the pitch, as well as the departure of their long-serving successful manager Nils Arne Eggen, demonstrate that nothing lasts forever.

Dundalk have been warned.

In the close season, they lost three of their best players without earning a transfer fee and spent close to £50,000 on recruitment; this week, they have been strongly linked with Bray's Dylan Connolly. Meanwhile, Rosenborg are paying erstwhile wearer of Paddy Power's lucky underpants, Nicklas Bendtner, the same amount every month.

"It's a great challenge," says Kenny, "because we haven't hit the same levels of consistency and the change in personnel has hurt us. We'd four good days in Fota Island recently and it was a good mental break for us.

"We had to re-examine what we need to do to get better, analyse everything and have an open discussion amongst ourselves. Last year was an amazing experience which captured the imagination of the wider public and they were 12 remarkable experiences and we want more of that."

Caulfield's side, who have a decent shot of overcoming Levadia Tallinn, albeit the Estonians are cutting a similar swathe through their domestic league, makes the point that his side's budget was dwarfed by BK Hacken last season but they still came through.

Shamrock Rovers, too, would be expected to dispose of Icelandic side Stjarnan, although their form this term is not as impressive as it was this time last year.

Derry City's thin squad will be tested to the limit by a latterday Danish version of Rosenborg, FC Midtjylland, who embarrassed Louis van Gaal's Manchester United two seasons ago after dumping Southampton from the Europa League. The side, featuring the 109-times-capped Dutchman Rafael van der Vaart, are the second-rated side of the 100 in the preliminary draw.

"We've only 16 players and a couple of schoolboys," says manager Kenny Shiels, who since the draw has lost influential duo Barry McNamee and Conor McDermott to injury ahead of their first leg in Denmark.

With work ongoing at the Brandywell, Derry will return to the Sligo Showgrounds; their travel time for the away leg will actually be shorter than to the home leg.

"If the games were later, in July, we might have been better equipped. We don't have much strength in depth in all areas. It's not that we're not confident…"

Another reminder of the disadvantage accruing from Ireland's poor status in Europe is that all three Europa League sides are unseeded. Indeed, had Dundalk not slipped to a last-day defeat in their European adventure, they might have earned the extra point that could have earned them a bye this time around.

Instead, it feels like they, and their Irish rivals, may be starting again in more ways than one.

"In the context of the last ten years, apart from Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers," Caulfield adds, "if Irish clubs get beyond a couple of rounds, they are over-achieving."

Dundalk were dream-weavers for Irish domestic football; this summer, reality may bite hard.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport