Bored with transfer stories? You could do worse than following the preliminary rounds of this seasons Europa League and League of Ireland side St. Patrick’s Athletic in particular.
St. Pat’s are from Dublin. They play their games in Richmond Park, Inchicore. They wear red. Their manager is Pete Mahon. They might conquer Europe. That’s the long and the short of it.
Thursday, July 7th, 2011. The second leg of the First Qualifying Round of the Europa League. Beginning the game an away goal behind, St. Pat’s hosted Icelandic side ÍBV at Inchicore, hoping to bounce back from the weekend defeat to table-topping Shamrock Rovers in the Airtiricity Premier League.
By half time, the Dubliners were two up on the night, leading 2-1 on aggregate. Ian Daly had made the breakthrough with an instinctive and acrobatic volley after ÍBV’s Ugandan goalkeeper Abel Dhaira flapped at a looping cross. Another ball from out wide, this time a free kick, eventually saw Derek Doyle get the second. His was the final head through the ball when the Icelandic side could not deal with a messy moment in front of their own goal.
The visitors did have chances though and it could have been a much different story were it not for their opposition’s goalkeeper. Gary Rodgers had to get down low to keep out former Icelandic international striker Tryggvi Guðmundsson before Daly had scored. Guðmundsson again troubled Rodgers shortly after St. Pat’s opener when he got on the end of a low cross, only to find himself thwarted once again. ÍBV’s danger man had his best chance just before half time when he found himself unmarked, ten yards from goal after a swift counter that went through Englishmen Kelvin Mellor and Ian Jeffs. Guðmundsson couldn’t hit the target and his team went in at the half still looking for that elusive away goal.
The second half was not so flush with chances. Both sides looked nervous; the Irishmen were careful of the fact that an away goal would overhaul the two they had scored in the first half, while their opponents knew that conceding another would probably put them out. Only a snap shot from another Englishman, Matt Garner, worked Gary Rodgers in the final minutes. When the ball broke from a corner, Garner flicked the switch but it was straight at safe hands.
The win gives Pete Mahon’s team a tie against FC Shakhter Karagandy in the Second Qualifying Round. The Kazakh outfit had advanced earlier with a 3-2 aggregate win over FC Koper of Slovenia. While on the one hand it looks a winnable contest, and players and staff alike will be chomping at the bit, the marathon trip to Kazakhstan will hardly be comfortable in the middle of a hotly contested title race.
St. Pat’s are currently second in the Airtricity Premier League after their 1-0 defeat to Shamrock Rovers. The result saw the teams exchange places atop the tree for the second time in as many weeks. On Sunday they play Dundalk at home, not only hoping to keep hold of Rovers but also wary of the competition of Sligo Rovers and Derry City in third and fourth places respectively. Five points separate the four teams and every week is vital to the momentum of a league winning campaign. Despite that, there is a bit of magic in Europe.
While it is hardly lucrative at this stage of the competition, not by English and European standards at least, the Europa League will be high on Mahon’s list of priorities. If they can come home from Karagandy with the tie still in the balance, maybe even with an away goal, they will be confident that they can get through. In the small fry financial terms of the League of Ireland, a little run in Europe can be massive, even if it is just getting to the third qualifying round or the playoffs for the Europa League proper.
As it is, the monetary rewards will be the difference between a tight financial year (which is every financial year for almost all of the clubs in the League of Ireland), and one where they can keep their squad together and perhaps even build on it, attracting more quality. The fixed payments for reaching the Europa League Group Stages would be in the region of €1,000,000, absolutely massive money for a club like St. Pat’s, and that is without any potential gates from lucrative ties or an influx of national and international support. It is highly unlikely, really, but one might hope.
If they can successfully negotiate the Karagandy fixtures, there are a myriad of internationally known teams waiting in the third qualifying round including Stoke City, Atlético Madrid, Palermo and Rennes to name but a few. They might be joined by Bohemians, another Dublin side, who now enter the competition for the Second Qualifying Round to play Olimpija Lubljana of Slovenia. Sligo Rovers arrive in the Third Qualifying Round with those big boys as winners of the FAI Cup. Then, of course, is the Playoff Round, which will feature some Champions League nearly teams.
It all looks daunting for the Saints, but having already begun their European campaign, maybe they have a little travelling momentum that Bohemians – who aren’t in stellar form anyway – and Sligo may not have. Maybe this could be St. Pat’s year. Maybe former Grimsby Town striker and current star of Richmond Park, Danny North, could score the winning goal in the Europa League final against Spurs or Sevilla. It probably won’t happen, but never let it be said that you weren’t warned.
You can follow Cathal on Twitter @iltreqartista