Saturday, 4 August 2012

The League of Ireland on Tour.

The domestic league in Ireland is by no means a major force when it comes to European football. Our clubs do occasionally obtain a glamorous draw in the qualification rounds and more often than not supporters of the other League of Ireland teams get fully behind our European representatives. In this piece I will take a look at the history of Irish teams in European competitions.

Having seen last seasons European explorers, Shamrock Rovers exit Europe at a premature stage to Lithuanian side FC Ekranas and Sligo Rovers fall short of overcoming Slovakia's Spartak Trnava, it is looking extremely unlikely that a League of Ireland club will have a European adventure this season. Especially seeing as St. Patrick's Athletic are currently 3-0 behind against German outfit Hannover 96 after the first leg of their tie. It's a real shame that we won't be seeing another Irish team take on the likes of Tottenham Hotspur once more in the group stages of one of Europe's club tournaments. 

As I'm sure every one of my Irish readers will remember, Shamrock Rovers managed to qualify for the group stages of the UEFA Europa League for the first time in the history of Irish football. However, contrary to the belief of most people, this was not the first time an Irish club qualified for the group stages of a European tournament. It was still a remarkable achievement. Having been drawn against Partizan Belgrade it was never going to be an easy road to the group stages. It became more improbable when you consider that Rovers were away for the second leg. At home, they drew 1-1. Not the worst result but Partizan went home with an away goal in the bag. The away leg was tight, it remained 1-1 after 90 minutes, sending the game to extra-time. In the second half of extra-time the game looked destined for penalties. After 112 minutes of nail-biting for Irish football fans Shamrock Rovers were awarded a penalty. This was their chance. Stephen O'Donnell stepped up, goal. Shamrock Rovers made it to the group stages of the Europa League. Without any doubt it was one of the greatest nights in the history of Irish football. 

When it came to the group stages, everyone wanted a big name for Rovers. Most would have wanted one of the English teams. They got their wish. The draw placed Rovers in a group alongside Rubin Kazan, PAOK, and biggest of all, Tottenham Hotspur. The best moment enjoyed in the group stage was when they visited White Hart Lane and took the lead. I couldn't believe what I was seeing when this happened. Unfortunately, the quality of Spurs became to much for Rovers to handle and they went on to win the game 3-1.

One of the biggest ties in recent history was unquestionably in 2004 when Shelbourne were drawn against Deportivo La Coruña of Spain in a UEFA Champions League qualifier. Amazingly, Shels managed to draw the home leg 0-0. Denying Deportivo an away goal which is always key in knockout football. Unfortunately, the away leg was a step too far and the Spaniards comfortably brushed Shels aside with a 3-0 win. With this defeat, Shels dropped into the qualification for the UEFA Cup (Now the Europa League) where they drew French side Lille. Yet again, they drew at home, this time 2-2. Two away goals for Lille gave them a huge advantage. They confidently beat Shelbourne 2-0 in the game in France to end the Dubliners' European tour. This is not Shelbourne's only taste of European football. The most high profile fixtures without doubt for them came in 1963-1964 season when they played FC Barcelona. They were outclassed and lost 5-1 on aggregate. They also played Rangers in the 1998-1999 season, also losing on aggregate, this time 7-3.

As I eluded to earlier in this piece, Irish teams have previously qualified for the group stages of a European tournament. In 1995, 1996 and 1997 Ireland had teams in the Intertoto Cup - A tournament which has since merged with the UEFA Cup to form the Europa League. In 1995, it was Dublin based club, Bohemians, who had the responsibility of flying the flag on the continent. Being drawn in a group with OB Odense, HJK Helsinki, Norkopping, and Girondins Bordeaux of France. Unfortunately, they didn't manage to pick up a point and only found the net twice, both in a 3-2 defeat away to HJK Helsinki.

A year later, the batton was passed from Dublin to the West, it was Sligo Rovers' turn to represent the country. They fared marginally better than Bohs, picking up two points in their 4 games. Sligo held Heerenveen and Nantes to a 0-0 and 2-2 draw respectively, although they suffered defeats to Lillestrom and FBK Kaunas in their two away matches. 

Another year on, Cork City had a chance to once again better the previous years tally by an Irish club. They succeeded. Having obtained a draw against Standard Liege, Maccabi Petah Tikva, FC Köln and FC Aarau, it certainly looked possible that they could at least equal Sligo's points total from the previous season. The only defeat they suffered was at home to German side FC Köln. Picking up a total of 3 points after drawing their remaining three games. It appeared Irish football was beginning to make progress in Europe. Unfortunately, it was not.

Another club with a rich history of 'glamorous' European ties is Dundalk FC. Between 1968 and 1988 they faced European powerhouses such as: Rangers, Liverpool, PSV Eindhoven, Celtic, FC Porto, Tottenham Hotspur and Ajax. It is mind boggling to think that a club which has played so many major European clubs on such a regular basis is, not even 25 years later, facing extinction. I would just briefly like to say that I hope Dundalk can resolve their financial problems and continue to operate in the League of Ireland. After losing Monaghan already this season, it would be tragic to lose a club of Dundalk's stature as well.

There is a case to be argued that the teams with the biggest matches are Athlone Town, Waterford United and Limerick. Athlone played AC Milan, Limerick played Real Madrid, and Waterford faced Manchaster United. On top of this, Waterford have also come up against Girondins Bordeaux, Celtic and Galatasaray while Athlone have also squared up to FC Copenhagen and Standard Liege in European fixtures.

Nowadays this may not seem like the most exciting fixture for an Irish club, but when Everton were drawn to face Finn Harps and U.C.D respectively, they were a different animal. Everton were one of the giants of English football at the time. It would be similar to Chelsea, or Manchester City in current times. The class of the English side showed, when they played Finn Harps anyway. The Donegal club were brushed aside effortlessly with two 5-0 wins for the Blue Merseyside club. It was not so straight forward however when they played U.C.D. The Students held out for a 0-0 draw at home. Everton struggled to win 1-0 in the tie across the water and progressed but U.C.D can be proud of that result considering the size differences between the two clubs.

Bayern Munich have also faced Irish opposition in the past, in the form of Drumcondra FC, a club no longer in existence. The Dublin based side also faced Atlético Madrid and FC Nuremburg. Another extinct club with a decent fixture list is Cork Hibernians, who clashed with Valencia, FC Schalke '04 and Borussia Mönchengladbach.

I am unable to conclude this piece without mentioning my beloved clubs brief European adventures. Bray Wanderers faced Turskish club Trabzonspor in the 1990-1991 season. The first leg against Trabzonspor was played in Tolka Park where Bray managed to snatch a 1-1 draw. Unluckily, they bowed out of the Cup Winners' Cup preliminary rounds after a 2-0 defeat in the return leg in Turkey. 

I would like to close by wishing St. Patrick's Athletic all the best in their return fixture in Germany. Unfortunately, they have the near impossible task of overturning a 3-0 deficit against Hannover. This would be a challenge for the best of European clubs, nevermind an Irish club. But, nothing is impossible and this is football, a sport in which absolutely anything can happen. So good luck to The Saints!

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