Dundalk’s European adventure wasn’t as long as last year and didn’t scale the same heights, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t progress of sorts.
Where last campaign’s run was made up of twelve games and ended with the greatest European season a League of Ireland team has had, probably ever, this year it was to end after 210 minutes in a bitterly disappointing 3-2 aggregate loss to Rosenborg in Trondheim on Wednesday night.
The exit was doubly hard to take due to the fact that they themselves had struck the first blow via Brian Gartland’s header with just over ten minutes on the clock. As was the case at Oriel Park last week, Dundalk were on the front foot and Rosenborg struggled to handle it.
However, again as was the case in Dundalk, they allowed the Norwegian side back into it on the stroke of half time; it was a carbon copy of the events a week earlier, and it took the wind out of the Lilywhites’ sails in much the same way.
Rosenborg grew from there and from the second half onwards it looked ominous for the reigning League of Ireland champions. The winning goal eventually came (albeit in extra-time) and although Ciaran Kilduff very nearly swung the tie back in Dundalk’s favour towards the end, the chance to face Celtic in the next round slipped away from their grasp.
Dundalk were dejected at the end, and the joy on the faces of the Rosenborg players after spoke volumes – this wasn’t some European powerhouse relieved and slightly embarrassed that a minnow had come close to knocking them out, this was a team that knew they were very much in a battle and it took nearly everything they had to emerge from it.
— Darren Frehill (@Darrenfrehill) July 19, 2017
And although they won’t be feeling it right now, Dundalk should be proud of that. The League of Ireland should be proud of that. Granted, this isn’t the Rosenborg team of ten years ago (and this incarnation will be doing well to trouble Celtic next week) but this was probably the most comfortable an Irish team has looked in Europe, considering the opposition, in quite some time.
This club have made undeniable progress in the past twelve months and have blazed a trail for Irish teams in Europe that has to have set the bar higher. In their Europa League run last season, they weren’t overawed at any time. In their six matches in the group stages – against seasoned opposition with plenty of European experience – they scored in all but one of those games.
The spirit showed against Ronseborg is being praised, and rightly so, but that tinge of disappointment is positive in its own way. It means the notions of simply “having a go” is starting to be left behind. Time was, a defeat to a team like Rosenborg would lead to a collective shrugging of the shoulders and simply moving on to next season where the whole usual cycle can begin again.
However, this defeat feels like something was left behind. When a manager’s tactics are being called into question (as Kenny’s are in some quarters, in particular for not being direct enough when a goal was required) then in a roundabout way it’s a good thing. It means the expectation levels have shifted and that making up the numbers won’t be accepted to the same extent.
That’s all well and good of course, but it needs to be maintained and improved upon. RTE panellists Richie Sadlier and Alan Cawley were beginning to touch on this debate in the studio in the aftermath of Dundalk’s exit and one gets the feeling that it’s a debate that could have run longer were it not for time constraints.
League of Ireland clubs have been operating on meagre budgets compared to a sizeable amount of their European counterparts for some time now, but at what stage must this be considered the foundation rather than the ceiling? At what stage is Dundalk’s (and, to a lesser extent, Cork City’s last season) progress going to be recognised and harnessed into something tangible and workable? Otherwise, we’re just doomed to repeat the cycle of nothingness when it comes to Ireland in Europe, constantly on the unseeded side of a Champions/Europa League draw ad infinitum.
In the hilariously misguided words of British Prime Minister Theresa May, “there’s no magic money tree” and that has to be taken into some level of consideration, but neither should it kill the argument stone dead. Former Cork City defender Neal Horgan has regularly spoken on the subject of full-time football, for example, and he believes that it is sustainable as long as the FAI, from the top down, have a dynamic plan for it to be sustainable.
Trying to rush it simply doesn’t work either, as look at the mess that Bray Wanderers have found themselves in when they tried to run before they could walk.
Ultimately though it comes down to a question of, what do we and the FAI want and expect for this league? Do we want nights like Wednesday to be celebrated as the novelty they currently are, or be more disappointed in them because the expectation level should be higher.
It won’t be easy, nor will it be any way sudden, but it has to improve for the league to be taken seriously.
On this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish Football Podcast we discussed the latest rounds of domestic and European fixtures, and were joined on the line by Galway United captain Colm Horgan.