Lee Daly on how the Champions and Europa League affect the game in Ireland, and the numerous contradictions that participation highlights.
The outcome of the draw for the preliminary stages of the Champions League and Europa League may hold little fear for fans of Arsenal or Villarreal, with even the Gunners tie against an Udinese side depleted by selling some of their best names seen as little more than a formality amongst some of their fan base. The likes of Stoke and Fulham have already played their Europa League qualifiers and although Harry Redknapp recently bemoaned the burden the Europa League places on squads, for fans of clubs like Stoke it must be a novelty at the least to be hosting Hadjuk Split. The competition also allows Hadjuk to see how they measure up to the Andy Gray definition of greatness; can they do it on a wet midweek evening in Stoke?
For Irish sides these games go beyond mere novelty or formality and provide career-defining opportunities to players who also hold down day jobs, having failed to make it in the professional leagues or having made the step up from Sunday football. They also provide a welcome injection of cash for a league where clubs still struggle to keep their head above water, even with the move from professional to part-time football.
For league champions Shamrock Rovers, there were particularly sizeable financial rewards at stake in their tie against Copenhagen. Had they been able to beat Copenhagen and reach the play off round they would have been rewarded with a bonus of €2.1M – four times the size of their accumulated losses for the last financial year. This would of course have been dreamland anyway, with the dizzying sum of €7.1M for participation in the group stage of the Champions League being beyond the realms of fantasy for the club.
Although the tie had been finely poised after the away leg, with Copenhagen holding a 1-0 lead, Rovers were outclassed and two away goals and a 3-0 aggregate win for the Danish champions (who famously reached last year’s Champions League quarter-finals) was the final outcome. Rovers have the consolation of facing Partizan Belgrade in a Europa League play off, as well as the “solidarity payment” of around €400,000 given to league champions who made the qualifying stages but not the competition proper.
A frequent comment trotted out every time European competition rolls around is how the games provide a “great advertisement” for the league, which tends to only make headlines when one of its clubs goes into financial difficulty. Of course games against famous names such as Juventus and Deportivo La Coruña do certainly help to build the league’s profile but they have failed to boost attendances in the long run. Indeed, in the case of Shelbourne, European competition proved to be their downfall, as the wages of a squad assembled at great expense to chase group stage qualification drove the club to the brink of liquidation.
Whilst Shamrock Rovers’ creditable performance against quality opposition might have been a boon to the league, there were more negative headlines generated by a Europa League tie featuring St Patrick’s Athletic. St Pats were only competing thanks to the close season collapse of Sporting Fingal, a short-lived but big-spending team who had finished above them in the league.
Having faced long trips to Kazakstan and Iceland in previous rounds, St Pats were drawn against Karpaty Lviv of the Ukraine in the third qualifying round and emerged from the away leg with a 2-0 scoreline in Karpaty’s favour. Preparations for the home leg were thrown into disarray as the players revealed two days before the game that they were in dispute with the club over unpaid bonuses and compensation for loss of earnings from their day jobs.
Going public with the dispute and refusing to engage in interviews in the build up to the game angered the club’s board, as the majority of the players had been signed to contracts before Sporting Fingal’s collapse and the issue of bonuses for European competition had therefore not arisen – as the club was not scheduled to compete in Europe. Close season has traditionally been a chaotic time in Irish club football, with players often released from clubs only to be brought back a few weeks later on reduced terms, as clubs try to balance the books but also remain competitive.
The dispute escalated with the players’ representatives announcing on the morning of the game that they had found the club’s offer of bonuses unsatisfactory and were going to boycott the match. This was the nuclear option, as not fulfilling the fixture would have lead to hefty fines and a ban from European competition by UEFA. This doomsday scenario played out in the media for the late morning and early afternoon but an intervention by the Football Association of Ireland eventually brought about a resolution to the dispute and the fixture went ahead, with Karpaty finishing as 5-1 winners on aggregate.
Disputes between players and owners over unpaid wages are not rare in the league and although clubs have scaled back expenditure they seem set to continue as income from match day attendances decline. European nights may provide a touch of glamour and source of revenue for the few clubs that participate in them but for the league to survive, much less flourish, it needs to appeal to new and lapsed fans. A summer season and old crumbling stadia far from the expanding Dublin suburbs are not helping but the political will and monetary investment required by the clubs and the association remain nowhere to be found. As a consequence, European fixtures will remain vital for the survival of the bigger clubs, even as the real riches enjoyed by English clubs as a matter of course remain out of reach.