Irish League must change to make progress in Europe

Glenavon won their Europa League home leg against Norwegians Molde - but lost 6-3 on aggregate, and Mark Sykes has moved to English football.

MY one clear memory of the first Champions League match I attended involved me turning my back on the pitch – but only for a moment.

It was 1992, at the Oval. Yes, the Oval. Glentoran v Marseilles.

Towards the end of the first half, with the Glens trailing 3-0 since the half hour mark, I headed off for a burger.

Just as I got to the front of the queue at the van, the visitors were awarded a free kick to the left of the ‘D’.

Franck Sauzee stepped up and I knew, just knew, I had to watch what happened next.

‘Hold on, please’, I said to the burger man – and turned, as anticipated, to see Sauzee dink a delightful effort into the far top corner.

Marseilles were a special side, of course, going on to win the competition, albeit in a season marred by their domestic match-fixing.

That was the first season of the ‘Uefa Champions League’, initially only a label for the group stages. The recent break-up of both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and first admission for Israel and the Faroe Islands, meant an expansion of the number of clubs involved in the European Cup.

The luck of the draw pitted the Irish League champs, Glentoran, against what turned out to be the top team in Europe.

There’s absolutely no chance of that happening now.

The structures of the European club competitions have changed much more than the standards of Irish League football, yet it’s still depressing and embarrassing to see how far clubs up here have fallen down the pecking order.

NI clubs, as a collective, are currently ranked above only Kosovo, Andorra, and San Marino – and the Kosovans had their first campaign just last season.

Those rankings do fluctuate, with the Irish league up at 47th as recently as 2016/17. Yet as it stands in these club co-efficients, Northern Ireland is rated below Gibraltar, who only entered European club competitions in 2014/15. Over the past decade or so, NI clubs have been overtaken by Luxembourg, Faroe Islands, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.

On an individual club basis, Crusaders are the best of the Irish League, rated 234th - equal with Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar. Cliftonville are exactly 100 places below their north Belfast rivals in those rankings. Linfield are 344th, with Glentoran again 100 below them, at 444.

Before there’s a barrage of angry phone calls, emails, or Tweets, this is not a criticism of those working hard within the clubs

Indeed, ironically the great coaching and development of younger players can adversely affect the sides they leave behind once those lads follow the ‘pathway’ to England or Scotland, despite some recompense coming to the parent club.

There’s been a lack of investment in facilities, although better work is being done in recent years by the Northern Ireland Football League and the Irish Football Association.

However, clubs in Northern Ireland need to adjust to the new realities, and they seem to be doing so.

The importance of ‘European money’ is recognised, especially as the slide down the rankings will remove one of those European slots for at least a season.

The latest proposals for an All-Ireland/ all-island League would involve summer soccer. There would have to be sensible scheduling of midweek matches, due to travel distances, but the idea of regional leagues below the top tier is a good one.

The man behind the new plan, the wonderfully-named Kieran Lucid, has revealed that, somewhat surprisingly, southern clubs were “more resistant” to the idea than their northern counterparts.

Then again, northern sides have more to gain, much more room for improvement, on and around the pitches.

At least there are grounds for optimism from the recent European draws.

Crusaders have the exciting prospect of taking on upcoming English side Wolves if they get through their Europa League tie, but before that there won’t be many heartbeats skipped by them or Ballymena United as they both take on opponents from the Faroe Islands.

Similarly, Cliftonville are up against Welsh outfit Barry Town United tomorrow night.

Still, there is an obvious upside to being paired against little-known opposition – an increased likelihood of making progress to the next round.

Despite their higher ranking, the teams from the Airtricity League have been handed tougher ties, against club from Sweden, Norway, and Latvia, although Cork City got luckier as they will meet opposition from Wales or Luxembourg.

It’s generally accepted that southern clubs have benefitted since the then eircom League made the switch to summer football in 2003.

To increase their chances of progress in Europe, the Irish League needs to follow suit, whether that’s part of an all-island set-up or not.

Taking on teams while missing players on holiday or with the team barely having trained is not conducive to competing at your best.

Last summer Glenavon, amusingly, beat the club managed by the guy now somehow considered good enough to be Manchester United boss – but still lost 6-3 on aggregate. Coleraine lost to a side from Serbia, but one that no one here had ever heard of before.

Crusaders were hammered 9-0 on aggregate by Ludogorets of Bulgaria.

Also in the Champions League qualifiers, Cork lost out 4-0 to Legia Warsaw – but in the Europa League Dundalk defeated Estonians Levadia Tallinn.

Derry City were only edged out by Dinamo Minsk, after winning the second leg in Belarus, and Shamrock Rovers were similarly squeezed out by AIK Stockholm, but only after extra time in the away second leg.

Dundalk showed what can be achieved in their 2016-17 European campaign, first knocking out BATE Borisov in the Champions League qualifiers, then, after later dropping into the Europa League, defeating Maccabi Tel Aviv, holding AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, and troubling Zenit St Petersburg twice.

Northern Irish clubs will probably never get back to occasions like that balmy night in east Belfast in mid-September 1992, but at least a switch to summer football would improve playing standards.

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