The days of suffering an inferiority complex are over
Tim Clancy cut a frustrated figure as he left the press room in Tallaght Stadium on Thursday evening, wrestling with his emotions over what had just unfolded.
His first campaign as a European manager ended in the bitter disappointment of a St Patrick’s Athletic defeat to CSKA Sofia with Clancy wondering if the sense of hurt was clouding his judgement of the performance of the match officials. Replays backed up his gut feeling that the Saints were hard done by.
English defender Harry Brockbank emerged with a video clip of his apparent handball that gave CSKA a penalty kick, a play-off tie and a guaranteed €1m in prizemoney. It showed the ball striking the arm of his opponent first.
This may sound like a dangerous diversion into moral victory territory, but there was more to the Saints reflections than that. Deep down, they knew it was one they had allowed to slip away.
Preparations were good, and the game plan across 180 minutes was solid. When it came to the crunch, they defended one corner badly and missed a string of chances before the controversy.
For Clancy, it’s a learning curve, yet it’s striking that, at 38, he is the oldest of the four League of Ireland managers who brought teams into Europe this year. Derry’s Ruaidhrí Higgins, Sligo Rovers’ John Russell and Shamrock Rovers supremo Stephen Bradley are all 37.
The case of Bradley is slightly different, yet it was a first crack at this level for Higgins and Russell too. Derry’s campaign was short-lived, a first round loss to Riga of Latvia, while Russell’s maiden voyage ended on a high with a second leg defeat of Norway’s Viking Stavanger on Thursday, consolation for the first leg drubbing that killed it as a contest.
Still, the rookie boss delivered four 90-minute wins out of six games, more than some better known domestic bosses would have registered in their entire career.
The League of Ireland’s European story will continue to November this year with Shamrock Rovers’ victory in Macedonia on Tuesday confirming they will be involved in group stage football.
All that remains to be decided is the competition; they have a crack at Hungarian champions Ferencvaros to qualify for the Europa League and if they fall short they end up in the Europa Conference League which, in reality, was their target when it all started.
It’s valid to explore the issue of whether a spike in League of Ireland results has been caused by the introduction of the third tier competition or is a product of progression that would have happened regardless.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. For the champions, the additional safety net provides serious insurance as consolation for the Champions League becoming more exclusive and it removes the win or bust pressure that used to exist.
Every country is able to benefit from the chance for more fixtures and Rovers are capitalising.
Meanwhile, for the other Irish teams, the innovative competition offers an increased likelihood of winnable first round ties. After that, however, the level of difficulty is comparable to what they would have previously faced when they all started in the Europa League.
Last year, Bohemians and Derry advanced to the third hurdle and gave PAOK and Vitesse a scare. St Patrick’s Athletic and Sligo Rovers reached the same point this year.
They’ve done well, without it representing some kind of revolution. Rather, it’s a product of increased standards of professionalism and preparation in an attempt to keep up with everyone else.
Dark days in League of Ireland history are synonymous with drubbings in far flung destinations, and trips that were memorable for the night out afterwards and possibly even before in some instances.
That mindset is now obsolete, and the age profile in the dugout must be acknowledged as a factor.
All of the managers in the top half of the Premier table are under 40, with Dundalk’s Stephen O’Donnell (36) likely to be in the European arena next term.
This contingent of managers are largely drawn from the first generation of LOI players that were full-time for the majority of their careers and they’ve lived through a cycle of boom and bust and Celtic Tiger placing of carts before horses.
They are all-in on football — it isn’t a nixer — and don’t have the inbuilt inferiority complex that sometimes functioned as a comfort blanket to European failures.
With Stephen Kenny, who tried along with Pat Fenlon and Paul Doolin to raise the bar in the 2000s before the crash, now in situ as international manager, and FAI CEO Jonathan Hill on the record as stating that he would like to always see an Irishman in the role, then this new crop have plausible reasons to believe they can go places as a manager that were out of reach for them as a player.
There was a misguided belief that Damien Duff would see managing at home as beneath him in some way whereas in reality it can function as a platform.
Earlier this year Bradley turned down the chance to take over Lincoln, while Notts County enquired about Higgins, even though neither individual played a senior game in England. Word travels, and it’s evident that Irish sides are entering Europe with a more nuanced game plan.
The era of 11 men behind the ball and booting for touch is redundant. Bradley’s Rovers will have to contain strong opposition in the weeks and months ahead, yet the Irish public will see that they seek to press when they can and counter-attack efficiently. Bradley is six years in the job and has learned a lot from the process. In Europe this year, a Rovers side that seek to own the ball at home have shown a flexibility in their approach that reflects work on the training pitch.
Russell made the point on Thursday that the backdrop of better stadia and bigger crowds in European endeavours show League of Ireland players in a more favourable light. And that funding argument will always be there, with all the mood music pointing towards the league being central to third party support the FAI are seeking from government. Unease around that is centred from years of waste and a deep-seated fear it might disappear down a black hole. A fresh generation of coaches is helping to make the case that the game here is worth investing in.