Experience counts number one for Ireland's Euro hopefuls
League of Ireland quartet all banking on veteran goalkeepers as odysseys begin
When it comes to keeping European attackers at bay, League of Ireland managers are agreed on one thing: for your last line of defence, send for the elder statesmen. So it is that, this week, three 36-year-olds and a 37-year-old could well be in goal for Dundalk, Derry City, Shamrock Rovers and Cork City respectively. The first three - Gary Rogers, Ger Doherty and Alan Mannus - have a wealth of experience, each having played well over 600 games in long and distinguished careers.
Cork's Mark McNulty - now an injury concern after hobbling off late on against Rovers on Friday - is the exception, having had to bide his time as reserve goalkeeper for many years before making the breakthrough 10 years ago. He has more than made up for that, having been named Goalkeeper of the Year for three of the last four years.
Patience was the order of the day for McNulty. "It was tough," he recalls, "as Michael Devine had the jersey and he was a very good 'keeper, but Phil Harrington kept telling me that my chance would come. We would be in the gym on our own at seven in the morning after a game even though I wasn't playing. 'If you want to make it in your career, that's what you have to do,' he said. As a goalkeeping coach, he's brilliant. All my career, I have Phil to thank for it. I'm glad I stuck at it, especially to enjoy doing the double last year, in front of my wife and five children and my parents.
"Tommy Dunne came in and thankfully he took a chance with me from day one, and I have to thank him for that. He stuck with me through my early mistakes and I have improved year on year.
"I've only missed one game since John Caulfield came in, and that was after we had won the league. Managers are reluctant to change goalkeepers, so young goalkeepers have to bide their time, and there's no better example than myself."
Looking ahead to Tuesday's Champions League qualifier against Legia Warsaw (Turner's Cross, 7.45), he waxes eloquent: "Everyone wants to play in these European games. Every day seems to be sunny, the Cross is packed to the rafters, everyone in town is talking about it, you play in super stadia. The last time we were in the Champions League I was on the bench, it was Red Star Belgrade, and I remember the cops lining the street with their guns, the unbelievable atmosphere in the stadium - these are what European games bring you."
So what is the big lesson his European experience has taught him? "Don't be over-hyping it in your head, and try to make as few mistakes as possible because you don't get away with any in Europe."
He makes another observation: "European clubs don't rate Irish teams. Last year, Levadia were laughing as they went through their warm-up in Tallinn. We beat them 2-0, and when they came to the Cross their attitude had changed."
Doherty's European adventures started during an eight-year stint with Welsh club TNS when fixtures included a tie with Liverpool, the holders at the time.
"With Derry I played a couple of big clubs; I remember Trabzonspor (Turkey) for the madness over there - the atmosphere was manic - but playing for my hometown club means so much to me.
"We are on a bit of a dip at the moment but this game (Dinamo Minsk, Brandywell, Thursday) could be like a break away and help re-charge the batteries. We have signed a few new players and things have stepped up in training."
Rogers, who has made 35 European appearances, makes the comparisons between Irish performances in Europe when he started and nowadays. "The ball retention of our players at Dundalk is so good that we are not under so much pressure, and players are in better physical condition compared to 10 years ago. Standards have definitely risen," he says. "Generally the opposition in Europe could be the best of any season. The sharpness of their finishers is very good. There is a difference of thought in their strikers, so that a half-chance can punish you, whereas it might not in a league game."
With the structure of the competition weighted against the minnows, it's getting harder for clubs to reach the group stages as Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk did. "We now have to win four rounds to get into the group stages," says Rogers. "We'd have to be at our best every week. It's a massive challenge."
First up for Dundalk is a trip to Levadia Tallinn on Thursday, where they aim to emulate Cork's success last year.
When Mannus joined Shamrock Rovers in 2009, it was a career move; his re-signing this year is also a family move. "When I came here originally, it was to get into full-time football, which I achieved, and this time, with a young son, we knew we were going to come back and I was wondering what kind of club I would get, and it worked out for me that Shamrock Rovers wanted me. I just want to contribute and play my part, and it would be good if we could have some success like we had before."
Wherever he has gone - Linfield, Rovers and St Johnstone - Mannus has enjoyed success, and the lesson he has learned from almost 30 European ties is that "one goal can put you out, can end the tie, over two games, so you must not give away goals that are avoidable."
On Thursday's game against Swedish side AIK (Tallaght Stadium), he said: "It's one of the hardest draws we could have got, but we have a good chance over the two games."
Sunday Indo Sport