Pundit Arena columnist and 2014 Premier Division champion with Dundalk Chris Shields discusses the Lilywhites’ chances on the European stage this year as well as the importance of European football for the League of Ireland in general.
There was a stage last year when we were all on a European high but come the end of the year it was eclipsed by winning the league, retaining the title this year is now the ambition.
However, the standout moment for many of our fans, last year, would have been the away game against Hadjuk Split, which we won 2-1. We weren’t really given a chance in that tie. We were 2-0 down from the first leg, and had been written-off by everyone bar ourselves. We certainly felt we could have got something out of the first leg in Oriel Park.
This was after we had played Jeunesse Esch from Luxemburg and we were definitely the stronger team over both legs, winning 5-1 on aggregate. However, we knew we had Hadjuk Split coming up.
We were aware of the prestige of the club and that they were European giants; they had been in the Champions League and won the Croatian league in recent years so for them to come to Oriel Park was a great experience. For many of my teammates and myself included, it really wet the pallet. I can’t wait to play in Europe again this season.
Analysing Irish clubs’ performances last year, there should definitely be plenty of confidence facing into this summer, not only for Dundalk but across the board. One only has to look at what Sligo Rovers did against Rosenberg, winning 2-1 away from home, what we did against Split and how St. Pat’s put on such a good performance against Legia Warsaw.
It’s just a shame that we couldn’t sustain it over the two legs but I believe we should definitely take confidence from a domestic point of view. Irish sides should certainly enter the summer with high hopes and hopefully progress again this year.
It’s also a massive boost to have the likes of Stephen O’Donnell and newly-signed Ronan Finn, who have both previously played in the Europa League group stages. O’Donnell in particular is renowned for that penalty, which put Rovers through their final qualifying round of the 2011 Europa League against Partizan Belgrade. He showed such great composure to stick away the penalty, and at such a crucial time.
We also have Gary Rogers who has played many times in Europe and was in goal for Sligo when they did so well against Rosenberg last summer, so that will only add to the squad for the campaign ahead.
The year of European football we gained in 2014 cannot be discounted either as a contributing factor to our collective continental experience going into this year.
Some may see it as a disadvantage to be in the Champions League qualifiers as opposed to the Europa League but I disagree. Why should our league not compete at the highest level? It’s a well-deserved reward for the league champions.
It’s good for the league that we can compete in the Champions League as well because, for example if you’re to win your first tie and lose in the next round, there’s still a great chance of getting into the Europa League, such as the way Shamrock Rovers did in 2011.
This means the key for us is to win the first tie, advance to the next round and anything is possible, as shown by Rovers.
The strength of a side’s squad will dictate whether or not European football becomes a distraction to other competitions and cups. We illustrated strength in depth last year and we’ve retained the majority of our squad so last season’s experiences will be vital.
For most of the year we were playing on a Friday and then again on Monday or even on a Saturday and then the following Monday, given the fact we were competing in the Setanta Cup, League Cup, FAI Cup, Premier Division, and had Europe on top of all that.
We were also in all of those competitions right up until the business end of the season. We won the EA Sports Cup, and advanced to the quarter-final stage of the FAI Cup, which resulted in a replay, adding a further fixture to an already busy schedule.
Due to our experiences last season, we know we’re capable of competing on all fronts. It’s all to do with how you manage yourself and Europe certainly won’t be a distraction as everyone relishes playing more football.
When you’re enjoying your football, the more games you can play the better. All you want is another game as soon as possible.
Our squad is also quite versatile, which could be of benefit in Europe. We’re not stuck on one set formation or one style of play. We changed things up against the bigger opponents last season such as the likes of Hadjuk Split.
The midfield battle was between myself Ruairi Higgins and Richie and that’s what worked so well for us against Split.
This summer the experience of manager, Stephen Kenny will also be invaluable. He’s proved time and time again with the trophies he has won and what he’s done with each squad that he’s a fantastic manager. He’s a brilliant man-manager too and has a brilliant tactical awareness of when to play different players, at different times, and at the right time.
Stephen isn’t a new kid on the block. He has team rotation down to a tee at this stage and he’d almost have his team thought out before we’d start thinking about it, he’s that far ahead of us.
As for the league in general, I would hope we can do well as a country because it only improves how we’re looked at and it improves our coefficient. It’s important for the advancement of the entire league because it provides clubs with a major financial boost. It’s tough enough for most clubs at the moment so European money is of huge benefit.
Gaining positive results will also help in improving our reputation as a league. I can’t tell what sides across Europe are thinking but you want them to look at the draw and not see a tie against Irish sides as a walk in the park.
Looking at the other Irish sides (Cork City, St. Pat’s and Shamrock Rovers) who are to play in Europe as well this year, they probably make up the sides who are best-suited to compete.
Last year, we proved that we were worthy champions and we’ve built on a good squad. Cork have improved yet again and so have Rovers and St. Pat’s. When you look at Pat’s style of play, Cork’s ground and factors like this, all four clubs are suited to the European stage.
This year could be a good year for the Irish clubs.
Chris Shields, Pundit Arena