Above: a Dundalk player during their FAI Cup quarter-final tie with UCD. Photo: Kevin Quinlan.
The League of Ireland champions have been making waves on the continental stage but how exactly does that translate to the domestic league? Ian Moore and David Kennedy lock horns on the topic.
By Ian Moore
An Irish sport fan would need to have spent the last couple of months hiding under a rock in order to let Dundalk’s exploits on the European stage pass them by. Spirited performances against bona fide Champions League outfits such as Zenit St Petersburg and BATE Borisov along with a draw away to AZ Alkmaar and a historic win against Maccabi Tel Aviv have seen the Lilywhites punching well above their weight. This gave them a realistic chance of making the knockout stages – drastically improving on Shamrock Rovers’ foray into the Europa League group stages five years ago.
Dundalk’s European odyssey is undoubtedly a game-changer for the Louth outfit. The multi-million euro windfall in prize and television money will usher in an era of financial security which is virtually unheard of for an Irish club, and funds can be used to develop their decrepit home ground of Oriel Park (which was deemed unfit to host their European fixtures). Additionally, the Europa League provides a platform for the talents of Dundalk’s prized assets such as Daryl Horgan and Dane Massey, UCD alumni Ronan Finn, Robbie Benson and David McMillan as well as manager Stephen Kenny.
This is all good news for Dundalk. But what does this mean for the rest of the League of Ireland?
For the past three seasons Dundalk have been Premier Division champions, with limited competition in that time. Cork City have provided a reasonable challenge, trailing the champions by two, twelve and seven points in 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively. In modern football – where what happens with regard to finances can be as important as what happens on the pitch – it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the rumoured cash injection of €6 million will widen the gap between Dundalk and the rest. Especially in a division where the highest earner takes home €40,000 a year, the average wage is a mere €16,000 annually and short-term contracts are the norm. Based on this fact alone a pessimist may cry that competition in the League of Ireland is dead.
But what about Shamrock Rovers? The Hoops reached the same stage of European competition a mere five years ago but they haven’t even mustered up a title challenge in the intervening years, never mind the total domination that was predicted at the time. The difference here lies in the stability that Dundalk have maintained over the last three years, and which looks to be continuing.
Manager Stephen Kenny is contracted until 2018, and it is expected that many of the squad will remain over the close season – the mercurial Horgan has said “only a fantastic offer” would tempt him away from Oriel Park. This is in direct contrast to that Shamrock Rovers team, which manager Michael O’Neill left to manage Northern Ireland and key players such as Garry Twigg, Enda Stevens and Karl Sheppard moved on from only to be replaced by a seemingly endless stream of ineffectual managers and costly players (which reputedly made a serious dent in the windfall from their European adventures).
With the solid team structure surrounding Stephen Kenny, it’s hard to see history repeating itself at Oriel Park.
Yet a question remains about the UEFA coefficients. After Dundalk’s exploits, the League of Ireland has climbed four places in the rankings, now sandwiched between the footballing strongholds that are the Finnish and Albanian league systems. Combine our (still paltry) position with UEFA’s plan to make their competitions essentially a closed shop for the clubs that dine at the top table in Europe and it seems safe to say that this change won’t make much difference to the League.
Nevertheless, the “coefficient” buzzword will be used by the FAI to parade Dundalk as evidence of the progress the League is making, even though in reality their success merely serves to paper over the cracks in a League where many clubs live with the ever-present threat of extinction – notwithstanding the laughable €5,000 each was offered as part of the FAI’s ‘strategic plan’ (despite the organisation receiving millions in prize money after the Republic of Ireland’s showing at Euro 2016).
As a lifelong League of Ireland fan, I was enthusiastic about the response to Dundalk’s success from peers who had once sniggered at my interest in the domestic game and – if the Internet was anything to go by – half the country turned into League of Ireland fans overnight. But the interest amounted to little more than a pat on the back for Dundalk. Attendance remains poor, and in a country that is home to “the best fans in the world” only three hundred and sixty-nine of them showed up for a clash between Cork and St Pat’s that would have a direct effect on the title race.
While it is obvious that Dundalk’s performances of late are a credit to the League and have become a model that many Irish clubs wish to follow, it is unfortunate that their success will be used by the FAI to continually stab the domestic game in the back. With the League as a whole in terminal decline, we are edging ever closer to a time where Eamon Dunphy’s famous words that “you can’t hurt a corpse by stabbing it” will ring true.
By David Kennedy
Since Dundalk’s European adventure began attracting attention from all quarters after the win over BATE Borisov in August, there have been cynics aplenty amongst both fans and media regarding its wider benefits for Irish football. However, with interest in the League of Ireland remaining low over the past decade, the Dundalk fairy-tale has put domestic football in this country back on the table. League of Ireland football has remained at the forefront of the sporting consciousness of an impassioned minority but, in general, the English game is more closely followed and talked about.
In terms of attendance, the reality is that the Louth side’s recent mass exposure cannot make the numbers any worse. The Premier Division average crowd for 2016 was 1,471 people, according to extratime.ie. Next season, should Dundalk keep their prized assets, the draw of players like Daryl Horgan and Ciarán Kilduff may well boost attendances at grounds around the country, while Oriel Park could also see more people through the gates off the back of this season’s results.
The theory then follows that Dundalk’s televised European games, as well as those broadcast as part of the title run-in, have shown that while interest in domestic football has dwindled, Ireland has a competitive top flight with some decent footballers.
In the end, seven points separated the Lilywhites from runners-up Cork City, but it took a 2-1 win for the hosts when the sides met at Oriel Park in the closing weeks of the season to swing the tide in Dundalk’s favour.
Most of the discussion surrounding Dundalk’s Champions League and subsequent Europa League campaigns has naturally focused on the prize money they have earned to date due to the extent that it dwarfs the sums awarded domestically. Alas, expectations of the minimum €6m being splurged on a brand-new team are probably wildly unrealistic.
Martin Connolly, the club’s general manager, recently told the Dundalk Democrat that around half of the money earned will end up being spent on the increased expenses that come with the rigors of European football, such as travel and accommodation costs for trips to Russia and Israel.
Add in the extra bonuses due to players and staff and suddenly the seemingly massive windfall is a fraction of the figures widely quoted in the press.
That said, Dundalk will still end the season as the league’s richest club. The noises coming out of the club suggest that the money will be invested strategically. The Oriel Park situation, where former owner Gerry Matthews still holds the lease, makes improving one of the league’s least equipped grounds impossible for the moment. Attention will likely turn to the club’s training facilities, while there is a desire to ensure the longevity of the club’s success by investing in the youth setup.
On a recent Second Captains podcast, Lilywhites fitness coach Graham Byrne spoke of his desire to implement the same rehabilitation programmes and nutrition habits at all levels of the club should he be given free reign of the club’s money.
An improvement of facilities will make Dundalk the benchmark for League of Ireland clubs when it comes to infrastructure. Successfully enhancing training and fitness amenities within the confines of the budget will provide a blueprint to other clubs in the league. Should the likes of Cork, Derry City or even in-form Bray Wanderers bludgeon their way through the European qualifiers over the coming years, a precedent will have been set: even when bonuses and travel expenses have been factored in, a portion of the budget can be used to make sustainable improvements to facilities and provide a more stable source of expenditure than wages or transfer fees.
Fears of Dundalk splashing their riches in the transfer market are probably misplaced. With the work to be done elsewhere in the club, the reality is that massive sums of money probably won’t be binged on new players. However, should the likes of Horgan be tempted by the bright lights of the English game, just as Richie Towell was lured to Brighton at the end of last season, Stephen Kenny will probably shop local for a replacement. Christy Fagan of St Pat’s, for example, has been suggested as an ideal candidate should Horgan move on. While a League of Ireland club would be losing an asset in terms of the transferred player, any prospective transfer fee received would probably go further in the league’s current climate.
Overall, Dundalk playing in the Europa League has put domestic football in Ireland back on the map. People are talking about the future of the domestic game, conversations that were not taking place in the mainstream media this time last year. With money coming into the League of Ireland from an external source, this could perhaps be the beginning of a stronger league and ultimately a stronger pool of players for the national team.