Shamrock Rovers host Luxembourg’s Progres Niederkorn in the second leg of their Europa League first round qualifier at Tallaght Stadium tonight, as the Hoops have an opportunity to become the first Irish side to advance to the second round of qualification.
Pat Fenlon’s side are joined in the Europa League first round by Cork City FC, St. Patrick’s Athletic and UCD who head to Iceland, Latvia and Luxembourg respectively for their second legs, while Dundalk will head to Belarus next week for their Champions League first round qualifier with Belarusian champions BATE Borisov.
Rovers are the only Irish club side to ever qualify for the Europa League group stages, while no Irish team has ever qualified for European football’s primary competition the Champions League. A lack of resources, talent and luck has cost Irish teams in European football for decades now, and while the League has made tremendous strides in generating interest in club football in Ireland by bringing former Ireland internationals into the league, European qualification would do more for the league than any former Irish international could.
Unlike many prominent football leagues around the world, the League of Ireland is a league where the best young footballing talent is not always showcased. Traditionally, in leagues such as the A-League in Australia or the MLS in the United States, the best young players from those countries start in the domestic league before looking to Europe to further their careers. In Ireland those young players often head abroad before even playing a game in the national league, with many heading to England from as young as 15 years old.
That’s not to say the League of Ireland doesn’t produce strong players – Shane Long, Seamus Coleman, Wes Hoolahan, James McClean and others have all spent time in Irish club football before getting their break in England, but the majority of Ireland’s best players are brought through club systems overseas before even playing a game in the league.
Most of Ireland’s best young players may have gone through the junior ranks at League of Ireland clubs but the best of those young players are often picked up by European clubs before playing for the club’s senior team. You only need to look at Paul Doolin’s Irish u19 side for confirmation of the league’s inability to keep top talent in Ireland, with 15 out of 18 from Doolin’s squad from the UEFA Elite Phase plying their trade outside of the of League of Ireland.
Given the league’s close proximity to England, it is only natural that a lot of young players are going to head to England, but if the FAI are serious about generating interest in club football in Ireland, the best thing that could happen is to have an Irish team playing in Europe.
Ireland has a lot of football fans but most of those fans follow English clubs given the consistency of English clubs in Europe, the great number of Irish players that have played for English clubs and the entertainment value of the Premier League. Irish fans like to see Irish players do well and while Irish internationals such as Keith Fahey, Stephen McPhail and Liam Miller were welcomed with open arms in the League of Ireland, they simply do not have the same impact on the average Irish fan as an Ireland team competing in Europe.
Ireland’s greatest football teams were predicated on defying the odds and getting further in tournaments than experts predicted, with Italia 90′ the poster child for the Irish sporting fairytale. An Irish club in the Europa League or Champions League would not only bring in added interest to the league, but it would also bring crowds through the gate, as when Shamrock Rovers played in the Europa League they would often double their league crowds with Rovers selling out Tallaght Stadium for their final group game with Tottenham Hotspur in 2011.
News this week of Damien Duff potentially signing with Shamrock Rovers sent shockwaves around the league as Duff would arguably be the league’s biggest ever signing, but while Rovers boss Fenlon admits the club would welcome the 100 cap veteran as much as any club would, he still believes an Irish club in Europe would be even bigger for the league.
“I think any quality player coming into any league or club would help,” Fenlon told 98FM. “We need a lift. We have the negative publicity around at the moment, we need another lift.
“European results would be more of a lift than signing any individual player,” said the former Hibernian boss.
“Making progress in Europe seems to be the only thing that excites people in this country. That would get people to watch games and raise the standard outside of the country as well.”
There’s no denying the addition of Duff, even at age 36, would be a significant boost to the league, but would it draw people and captivate Irish football fans like European qualification?
There are still some lengths to go before Duff joins a League of Ireland club or an Irish club qualifies for Europe, but at least one League of Ireland manager knows what’s bigger for the league, and it’s the man that may very well bring Duff back to Dublin.