Wednesday 25 April 2018

'Filming yourself serenading nuns doesn't mean you are a great football supporter'

David McMillan of Dundalk, left, celebrates and (right) Cork boss John Caulfield
David McMillan of Dundalk, left, celebrates and (right) Cork boss John Caulfield

Eamonn Sweeney

In Germany and Spain and Italy and England most fans probably don't even know that the Champions League has started. And when the final is played in Cardiff on June 3, 2017 very few supporters anywhere will remember what happened in the qualifying rounds almost a year previously.

But League of Ireland fans will remember. Because last week was one of the best our plucky little domestic league has enjoyed in Europe.

First you had Dundalk going to Iceland and earning the 2-2 draw which sent them through to the third qualifying round of the Champions League on away goals against Fimleikafaleg Hafnarfjordur. It was an upset because the Icelandic League stands 11 spots above our league in the UEFA rankings. They're 35th to the League of Ireland's 46th.

The Swedish League is ranked 18th, a whopping 28 spots ahead of us. Yet on Thursday night in Turner's Cross Cork City made light of that difference when scoring a 1-0 second leg win over BK Hacken to go through to the third qualifying round of the Europa League.

The two results represent a significant and heartening step forward for the League of Ireland, not least because in recent years our UEFA ranking has been in freefall. Just six years ago we were 29th, our best position since 1986. Our rise between 1998 and 2010 was the largest of any country in Europe. Since then the decline has become an embarrassment to anyone interested in the domestic game. Right now there are only eight countries beneath us and some of these, Gibraltar, Andorra, San Marino, are hardly countries at all. The heroics of Dundalk and Cork City should put us moving in the right direction again.

What may be more important to the clubs themselves is the financial windfall coming their way as a result of last week's wins. Dundalk will pocket over a million euro for making the third qualifying round of the Champions League and while Cork City's €250,000 for their progress in the Europa League is considerably less, it's still twice as much as the cash available for winning the League of Ireland title.

‘The Dundalk and Cork City fans who are following their teams in Europe are enjoying a more genuine and organic football experience than anyone who takes in an English game now and again’
Dundalk fans celebrate

Dundalk now find themselves just two rounds away from the Champions League group stages. They have every chance against the powerful BATE Borisov of Belarus next time out, having been slightly unlucky last year to lose 2-1 on aggregate. But even if they lose that one, they'll still have a play-off game to emulate the feat of Shamrock Rovers in the 2011-'12 season and win a place in the group stages of the Europa League.

It's fair to say Dundalk were the team most of us would have fancied to restore some pride in Europe. They are arguably one of the finest sides ever to have played in the domestic league and currently look to be on course to become the first side to win three titles in a row since Shamrock Rovers in 1985-'87. The 78 goals they scored in last year's campaign is an all-time record and broke a best which had stood for almost 90 years. With 46 goals from 18 games so far this term they're on course to make sure their own record only lasts a single season.

This pace has been maintained despite the loss of the top scorers in their two previous championship-winning seasons, Pat Hoban and Richie Towell. And it's been achieved without any marquee signings. David McMillan, who scored both goals in Iceland and has nine in his last four games, is a good striker but I can remember a few seasons ago when he couldn't buy a goal while playing with Sligo Rovers. Not for the first time Stephen Kenny has brought a player to new heights.

Making players better is what Stephen Kenny is all about. He's been doing it ever since becoming manager at Longford Town in 1998 at the age of just 27. Longford were the very model of an underachieving club at the time and there were people who wondered if they might be happier dropping out of the competition altogether. Kenny transformed their fortunes utterly, bringing them into an FAI Cup final and the Premier Division.

Kenny’s Dundalk are the big money-spinners
Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny

Since then there has been a league title victory with Bohemians, two runners-up spots and a fine UEFA Cup run with Derry City, a trip to the Scottish FA Cup final with Dunfermline and two league titles and an FAI Cup with Dundalk. There have also been sackings by Bohs, Dunfermline and Shamrock Rovers. If Kenny is currently on the pig's back, he is not unfamiliar with the harsher side of football management.

Kenny is such a quietly spoken individual I think there's been a tendency to underestimate him. And there are still those who would guffaw at the idea that he might make a fine manager of our national team. Yet he is an even better manager than Michael O'Neill, whose stewardship of Northern Ireland is one of the most impressive in all international football.

You know who else is underestimated? John Caulfield. There have been murmurings of discontent in recent times about the Cork City manager's tendency towards caution and his inability to overhaul Dundalk. Yet a little thought reveals that he's actually done a fantastic job at Turner's Cross. Dundalk have been irresistible of late yet Cork took them to the final game of the season two years ago and kept pace with them for long periods last year before finishing in the runner-up slot again. This year John Javert is on the trail of Stephen Valjean once again. Dundalk have burned off all other challengers but City trail by six points with a game in hand and have lost just one of 17 league games.

That's another reason I was pleased to see Cork turn over Hacken on Thursday night. It may convince the sceptics what a fine manager they have at Turner's Cross. Next up for City are Belgian side Genk who made it as far as the Champions League Round of 16 last season and should be too strong for a League of Ireland team. But at the very least they will provide City with another big full-house European night.

Last week's double dose of victory came at a time when the League of Ireland seems even more embattled than usual. Yet even in its current state it deserves more support than it gets. More financial support from the FAI, sure, but also more support from the fans. We've been deluged in recent weeks with the usual 'best supporters in the world' hype which erupts whenever Ireland qualify for a major tournament.

Yet proving that you're a great football supporter doesn't necessarily have to involve filming yourself serenading nuns or changing a wheel. You could prove it by attending just a few matches in the league which provided quite a few of those players you swore teary allegiance to in France.

Talk about 'poor standard' is often just a camouflage for couch-potato laziness and a kind of cultural cringe. The Swedish League, whose representatives were despatched at Turner's Cross averages almost 10,000 fans a game. If we could achieve a figure like that, more European success and even an odd journey into the group stages would follow.

It might not be the Premier League but I don't think I've ever come away from a League of Ireland match without feeling the better for it. Ronan Finn and Daryl Horgan of Dundalk, for example, will always do something that leaves you with a warm glow of aesthetic pleasure. There are others. Plenty of others. And it's not as if the alternative is watching a Premier League game down the road. The alternative is sitting at home and doing nothing. How bad does a football game have to be before that's a preferable option? And the 'I'd go but they make me feel bad for not going so I won't go,' is perhaps the worst excuse in Irish history.

The Dundalk and Cork City fans who are following their teams in Europe are enjoying a more genuine and organic football experience than anyone who takes in an English game now and again. No two ways about it.

It always surprises me that the people who are quickest to slag off the League of Ireland are GAA fans who'll swear that what makes their sport special is its local nature. Well, League of Ireland soccer is part of what we are too. Yet it's not enough for a sizable amount of people to ignore it, they feel an overpowering need to deride it at every opportunity. Sometimes I think the League of Ireland is a bit like Socialism. It's marginalised and will never take power yet its opponents mock it with such fervour it seems they won't be happy until it's entirely extirpated. Perhaps it's because the League's presence is a rebuke to the guilty conscience. Deep down a lot of its detractors know they should be making the effort to support it.

Through it all the League of Ireland abides. It's still alive. And last week in Europe, Cork and Dundalk showed that it's kicking too.

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