DFC | Dundalk FC — and League of Ireland clubs in general — are small fish in the shark-infested waters of the European qualifying rounds

Gavin McLaughlin looks back at Dundalk FC’s European exit and the factors that make life difficult for League of Ireland clubs against European opposition

“We want to be known as a European football club that plays in Ireland, rather than the other way around.”

There’s nothing like a sobering European exit to help put things into context and 19 months after former CEO Mal Brannigan made the bold statement above, Dundalk just haven’t been able to scale the monstrous heights of qualification for the European group stages. Ambition is one thing but expectation is another and as the past two seasons have shown, Dundalk — and League of Ireland clubs in general — are small fish in the shark-infested waters of the qualifying rounds with little to suggest that will change in the near future.

Luck of the draw, coupled with the progress of Riga and Linfield to the play-off round, has been cited as evidence to the contrary but both clubs still face a mammoth task to reach the group stages with Copenhagen and Qarabag respectively standing in their way. The other seeded teams in the play-off round are Celtic, Maribor, and Ferencvaros while a scan of the unseeded clubs shows the likes of BATE Borisov, Astana, and Ludogrets, quality sides which befit Brannigan’s description.

A lot of the chat since last Tuesday has centered on how Dundalk can ‘bridge the gap’ between domestic success and progress in Europe and numerous people have suggested that the club look to the continent and further afield for players to add real quality. It’s a valid shout but is it realistic? If for a minute, we ignore the significant financial outlay it would require, external factors are also stacked against the League of Ireland champions.

Is Dundalk, a town with a population of just over 35,000, and in a broader sense, Ireland, with Brexit looming and its high cost of living, poor infrastructure, and climate, an attractive place to live? Is Oriel Park the kind of environment where you want to train or play on a daily basis? Is the League of Ireland, a basket case in terms of organisation and direction, a pull for foreign players? Will it offer them a window to display their talents and enhance their international prospects? History suggests otherwise.

Krisztian Adorjan’s name has been referenced as the type of player that Dundalk should aspire to but, lest we forget, the Hungarian was only starting to get to grips with the frantic nature of the League of Ireland before his loan spell came to an end last summer. Even then, it was finances which ultimately decided his fate. “The reality is that we were only paying a small part of his wages,” was Stephen Kenny’s explanation at the time. “He had a brilliant contract and another club have bought him for another good contract. We’re just not in that kind of space.” The club that offered Adorjan a ‘good contract’? Italian third-tier outfit Virtus Entella.

An examination of Dundalk’s European opponents over the past two seasons shows the resources on offer elsewhere. AEK Larnaca, who dismantled Kenny’s side in 2018, are residents in the third biggest city in Cyprus with an idyllic climate and good wages on offer. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that nine of their current players come from Spain, a number of them with a wealth of La Liga experience. On the field, they made the Europa League play-offs in 2016 and 2017 while last year they blazed their way through to the group stages.

On paper, Riga FC look like an ordinary outfit but despite being ranked 280 in the UEFA club standings — 151 places below the Lilywhites — their squad still contains 12 foreigners. As well as that, they boast nine current Latvian internationals with 272 caps between them. Unlike here, playing in your national league is not an impediment to playing for your country. After being knocked out by Dundalk in the first round, they have regrouped well, beating Polish and Finnish opposition on the way to the play-off.

Mike Treacy has used Qarabag as an example of where Dundalk hope to be in the future. The Baku-based club is bolstered by the untold riches of Azersun Holding but their squad is backboned with Azeri internationals. Rashad Sadygov, their captain and centre-back, has played over 110 times for Azerbaijan since making his debut back in 2001. Since then, he has also experienced European football 103 times. For Qarabag in 2019, read BATE Borisov and Rosenborg in 2015 and 2017, teams packed with quality, operating at levels above the SSE Airtricity League.

Calls have been made, most notably from the likes of Stuey Byrne, for Dundalk’s owners to ‘start spending a few bob’ in a bid to close the gap but expecting PEAK6 to commit to a casino-style roll of the dice which would put the club’s future on the line is unrealistic. The chasm between a League of Ireland club, with ridiculously low-income streams, poor attendances and feeble prize money, and the type of clubs in the play-off round is huge.

Look at Slovan Bratislava. While Dundalk’s highest-paid earner clears around €100k per annum, Slovan’s players are paid somewhere in the region of €300k to €800k. Hungarian international David Holman, who scored the only goal in the first-leg between the teams, was a €700k signing from Debrecen, centre-forward Andrew Sporaz cost €600k from Basel while Ibrahim Rabiu, who didn’t even feature against Dundalk, arrived for a cool €1 million from Gent. Moha, the left-winger who caused plenty of unrest at the Tehelne-Pole, cost a relatively modest €150k which is still multiples above Dundalk’s record outlay for a player.

Backed by the owners, Perth has vowed to take the steps that are required to go to the next level and Andy Burton will have a key role to play over the months ahead. As senior recruitment consultant of Bournemouth, he has an extensive contacts book at his disposal and moves to enhance the quality in the Dundalk squad is evident by the pursuit of Danny Lafferty, the former Derry City full-back with Championship and international experience on his CV.

Those external factors have proved to be a stumbling block, though. A move to bring Richie Towell back to Oriel Park was considered but the attraction of plying his trade in League Two with Salford City was more appealing to the Dubliner. Waterford winger Zack Elbouzedi was also a target but he wants another crack at the UK. That was the route favoured by the likes of Patrick McEleney, Andy Boyle and Patrick Hoban in recent years, the lower leagues across the water a much more appetising prospect than playing regular European football here. It’s another mitigating factor. If our brightest homegrown stars opt to leave these shores, what chance do we have of persuading those from further afield to come?

It’s fair to say that pre-PEAK6, a run of six European games and prize money of €1.2 million would have been seen as a huge success for Dundalk but, rightly or wrongly, expectations have now reached levels that aren’t in keeping with the footballing world in which Dundalk live. Standards across Europe have also risen while the introduction of a fourth qualifying round last season only increased the handicap on smaller countries.

Despite the undoubted ambitions of Perth, PEAK6 and everybody connected with the club, it’s a fact that when Dundalk enter Europe, they are, more often than not, going toe-to-toe with giants. Every now and then, you might land a blow but when the giant responds, it’s inevitable that you’re going under.

It hurts, but it really shouldn’t be a surprise.

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