An underdog in any sport needs to maximise their strengths to increase their chances of success. Dundalk missed a trick against Legia Warsaw and paid the price. Having to play the first leg of their play-off at the Aviva Stadium may have cost them their Champions League dream.
That dream is over for at least another year as they crashed out of the competition on Tuesday night, succumbing to the flair and exuberance of their higher-ranked Polish opponents. If only that was the case. Whilst Dundalk can hold their heads high for capturing the imagination of a nation, they must surely be cursed with thoughts of what might have been.
The sad truth is that Legia Warsaw, over the two legs, showed very little to suggest they are anything but a distinctly average side. Indeed, they were there for the taking and their current form in the Polish Premier League would suggest the same. Such was their ordinariness, it’s safe to say that an Irish side will never have a better opportunity to qualify for the Champions League proper. So, where exactly was the tie lost?
I’m not going to delve into the tactics used or the technical differences between the teams as both are governed by the quality of players available to each manager, which is in turn dictated by finance. For starters, Legia have a ground that can cater for European football and I’m sure they pay their players 52 weeks of the year. On both counts, Dundalk don’t. Legia, quite rightly were the higher ranked side and consequently, the more established European side. They were supposed to steamroll little Dundalk, right? Wrong.
In spite of the gulf in turnover between the sides, it didn’t turn out that way. Football’s great like that. The underdog always has a chance but it needs help.
Unfortunately, Dundalk didn’t help themselves. They couldn’t. Their ground was deemed unfit for purpose and so needed a Champions League-approved stadium to fulfil the fixture. The game was lost not on the field but on the requirements to play the first leg at the Aviva Stadium. Prestige aside, there’s not a great argument supporting the view that playing at the Aviva Stadium would improve the team’s chances of achieving the seemingly impossible feat of Champions League qualification. In fact, quite the opposite.
Unquestionably, the game wasn’t big enough for the grandeur of the Aviva Stadium. It would have been more suited to a smaller capacity ground, albeit one that would have to meet UEFA requirements.
Irish football needs investment. It needs forward planning. In games of such magnitude, maximising home advantage is critical. Creating a partisan crowd is essential. A home crowd can intimidate as much as it can inspire.
As it stood, the game was played out in front of 30,000 spectators spread out between upper and lower tiers at the Aviva. The ‘Home of Irish football’ accommodated not only the Dundalk bandwagon jumpers but also the large Polish community living in and around the capital. Any opportunity for Dundalk to capitalise on home advantage was lost. At the top level, these things can make the difference.
I would also hazard a guess that the dimensions of the Aviva pitch weren’t altered in line with that of Dundalk’s Oriel Park. It certainly didn’t look that way. I say this because if dimensions weren’t altered, then playing the game at the Aviva would prove as much of a handicap to Dundalk’s players as it would Legia’s.
Maybe this explains the Dundalk players’ inability to attack with any real gusto in the latter stages of that home leg and instead concede a killer second goal. A goal that ultimately cost them the tie.
Investment right throughout the League of Ireland is needed. Especially now when we have a team on a European adventure and capturing the imagination. As a footballing nation, we continue to sabotage ourselves. We seem to persevere with mediocrity when the real prize is there for the taking.
At the top level, small decisions make big differences. Whatever about other sports, the footballing mentality certainly needs to change and when it does maybe we’ll all be celebrating an Irish side winning the euromillions of Champions League qualification instead of the football pools of the Europa league.
Leon McSweeney, Pundit Arena