Progress made by St Pat’s and Drogheda United in Europe shows summer soccer is proving a success, despite its critics, says Seán Mulvey.
Inchicore’s St Patrick’s Athletic left Berlin’s Olympiastadion last Tuesday with a 2-0 defeat, but having produced such a powerful performance, there seems to be a more positive future for the Irish clubs in Europe.
The UEFA Cup First Round tie saw the Saints travel to the site of the 2004 World Cup Final to face Hertha Berlin, and in the historic stadium Pats set about trying to upset the star-studded Bundesliga outfit.
Johnny McDonnell resisted the temptation to flood midfield, surprisingly sticking with two front men and a midfield composed of attack minded players such as Alan Kirby and Keith Fahey. There was no backs-to-the-wall approach, desperate blocks and goal line clearances, instead in the classic mould of a European away fixture, the Dubliners set out to contain the home side, stifling them at every turn, whilst trying to hit them on the counter.
Though offering little going forward in the first half, the Saints reached half time, having kept the Germans at bay. The Germans had fashioned just a one clear-cut chance as Barry Ryan saved smartly from Marko Pantelic. Hertha Berlin were clearly surprised by the competency of the Dubliners, and at half time Lucien Favre, the Hertha manager made the changes which won the game.
Realising a change of approach was quickly needed, two German substitutes were brought on at the half time shake up. Hertha changed their system by increasing the tempo. St Pat’s failed to adapt quickly enough. Five minutes after the break Hertha had their breakthrough. Pat’s failed to clear a corner, Ryan punched away a cross he may have caught, and substitute Nicu lofted the ball in to the far corner of the net with a sublime finish.
Pat’s didn’t panic and though the Germans continued to stretch the Saint’s defence, the Irish side weren’t often overrun. Gary Dempsey, Pat’s star performer of the game, harassed Berlin and a trademark set-piece from Keith Fahey almost saw them pull one back, but for a late intervention from Josip Simunic.
Hertha threatened more as Pat’s came out looking for an equaliser, and in the 76th minute Cicero added a second, sliding the ball past Barry Ryan after Jason Gavin had blocked Andriy Voronin’s attempt.
With the insurance of the second goal Hertha began to press less, and Pat’s took the opportunity to stretch the home team as they sought a priceless away goal, though couldn’t use their possession to create one. Though disappointing, the 2-0 defeat away to a Bundesliga side is no disaster, especially when one considers how difficult an away result is to achieve in European competition.
It was the manner of the performance that Pat’s put on at the Olympiastadion that is most heartening. Some years ago the game plan may have been to try and limit the illustrious opposition to a respectable scoreline, though McDonnell and his charges set ought to bring an away goal back to Dublin.
Hertha were of course deserving winners on the night, yet earlier in the summer we saw Drogheda United outplay the famous Dynamo Kiev, and create two simple chances late on to knock out the Ukrainian champions.
Both were missed by the narrowest of margins, and so Kiev progressed to the Champions League Group Stage. However the confidence and positive approach exhibited by Drogheda that night suggested that it surely won’t be long until we see an Irish club make a breakthrough in Europe.
The full-time professionals of the League of Ireland can now physically compete with their European opponents, whilst the inferiority complex and lack of self-belief that a big result can be achieved is being eroded.
Some of the benefit clearly comes from the switch to summer soccer a number of seasons ago. Performances and results in Europe have greatly improved, something which is crucial for the prestige, reputation and survival of the league.
Summer soccer has its critics; Sligo Rovers and Cobh Ramblers are among the rural sides who bemoan the new set-up saying it hits attendance figures as they say games clash with GAA, summer holidays and the ridiculous claim that fans are unable to attend games due to farm work that needs to be carried out at the same time.
The performances of Drogheda and Pat’s this year show that the miniscule numbers of farmers who are inconvenienced is a price that must be paid for the development of the league.
Further hope can be taken from this year’s Champions League. In 2003 Bohemians comfortably beat BATE Borisov 3-0 in a Champions League qualifying round.
This year the Belarussians are in a Champions’ League proper, in a group with Juventus, Real Madrid and Zenit St Petersburg. Cyrpus has a population of just 700,000, yet last week their champions, Anorthosis Famagusta, earned a 0-0 draw away to Germany’s Werder Bremen in their first group game of the Champions League.
Those performances from smaller sides, as well as the positive displays and results from Irish sides in recent years would suggest that an Irish breakthrough is closer than ever before.