The potential of League of Ireland in Europe

A few short years ago, if you had predicted that a League of Ireland club would reach the group stages of European competition, you’d probably have been laughed at. At least, nobody would have taken you seriously. Sure, there have been the glorious failure stories; Shelbourne holding La Liga side Deportivo La Coruña to a draw in Lansdowne, Drogheda United coming only a lick of paint on the goalpost away from knocking Dynamo Kiev out of the Champions League, Bohemians managing a draw away to Trapattoni’s former club Red Bull Salzburg. But here we are now in 2011, with Tottenham Hotspur, two points and a game in hand off second place in the Premier League, coming to our shores for a competitive European match in two weeks’ time.

Shamrock Rovers' group draw

And what’s the best thing about it all? It’s not the fact that a very widely known English club are coming to town. It’s not that one of our own gets to see a few new places in the world. It’s not the fact that our league is getting more publicity on the continental front, as well as in our own media. It isn’t even the fact that the season (for Rovers, anyway) gets to carry on another couple of months after the league ended. It is the potential – and very real possibility – that this can be done again.

Shamrock Rovers could very possibly reach the group stages of the Europa League 2012/13. Making it to the Champions League group stages may be a task too far just yet, but they could use the champions route again to reach the playoff round. With a bit of luck, who knows.

The League of Ireland can take a few lessons from Cypriot football to gain success in Europe. This year, APOEL Nicosia have become the first Cypriot team to qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions League. They did this despite being in a tough group including three very recent UEFA Cup/Europa League winners – Zenit St Petersburg, Shakhtar Donetsk and Porto. APOEL also reached the group stages of Europe’s premier competition in 09/10, but failed to qualify from the group then. However, they did manage to earn three points for themselves in a group that included Chelsea, Porto again and eventual Europa League winners Atlético Madrid.

Football in Cyprus is hardly a monopoly though. There are other teams who have enjoyed recent European success. In 2008-09, Anorthosis became the first team from the country to make the breakthrough into the Champions League proper, and there they earned impressive results against Inter Milan and Werder Bremen. The Cypriot Championship First Division is starting to develop teams that can regularly compete internationally and play amongst Europe’s elite.

It’s not even the case that Rovers are Ireland’s only hopes in Europe, too. Sligo and Derry have excellent squads that play a very attractive brand of football. With a little more luck this year, it could just as well have been Sligo that made the group stages – they’ve shown us plenty of times in recent seasons that their forté lies in knockout cup competitions and this bodes well in European qualifying rounds. Even St. Patrick’s Athletic, who although they didn’t do as well in the league table, had an impressive European run – something that could easily be built on.

Interestingly, Cyprus’ football success is all coming from a nation whose population is a mere 1.1 million, a fraction of that of Ireland’s. Therefore, there is less of a pool of players to choose from; there are less people, thus presumably less footballers in the country. And yet, roughly half the squads of APOEL and Anorthosis are Cypriots. How is it that a country with the population of that of a quarter of Ireland’s, have teams coming from their football league so much more advanced than that of the League of Ireland, and achieving so much more on the international scale?

Sligo Rovers were unlucky not to beat Vorskla Poltava in Ukraine

If John Delaney, as chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland, really wanted to try it, I mean really went for it, European “breakthroughs” like Rovers’ 2011 campaign could be an annual occurrence. Grassroots football in Ireland is one aspect that is currently far from ideal.

There are totally amateur clubs such as Verona FC located in Blanchardstown who are barely able to survive. Facilities at the club are decent, there is a good clubhouse with an indoor hall and enough land for two full sized pitches and a bit more. Verona has a senior team, but it mainly focuses on underage squads. However, the club has had to disband many youth teams recently due to things such as lack of interest from players, from managers and lack of funds. Verona receives some funding from the FAI, but it isn’t much. Certainly not enough to help them execute their proposed plans to move to the nearby Ongar, where they hoped they’d find a bigger interest from players to wear their blue and white kit.

As well as football at grassroots levels in Ireland being improve-able, the FAI could easily make a plethora of adjustments to make League of Ireland football better. For starters; prize money. The 2011 Champions of Ireland, Shamrock Rovers, only received €100,000 for their achievement. Sligo Rovers in second place were given €45,000 for their efforts. Two years ago, the league winners earned €280,000 while the runners up were given €130,000. The Hoops earned more money two years for finishing second than they did in 2011 for winning the league.

The FAI are scaling back far too much than what they should be. More money should be put into helping the clubs develop themselves and continue the recent overall growth in quality that we’ve seen the past few years. If more money was put into promoting the league as a product then more public interest and support would ensue too. This way the league can develop as a whole – and there is no better time to be doing this than now, for the 2012 season, while we have a team in the Europa League group stages.

What’s more than this, does Giovanni Trapattoni really deserve €1.7 million per annum? Is Delaney himself really worth a €415,000 salary? When I compare these figures with those of our domestic league, I fail to agree.

John Delaney has the perfect opportunity to change the face of the League of Ireland. He has the chance to turn the League into one that produces a team making it to European group stages every year. Imagine that. 


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