By Ryan Kelly
Michael O'Neill made history in 2011 when he guided Shamrock Rovers to the group stage of the Uefa Europa League. It was a momentous achievement, not only for the Hoops, but for football in Ireland generally; after numerous fruitless campaigns and only a few close runs, an Irish team had finally broken the barrier.
Sligo Rovers will represent the League of Ireland in the 2013-14 Uefa Champions League and manager Ian Baraclough looks at O'Neill's achievement as something from which to draw inspiration. "I said it a couple of months ago at the launch of the season: why can a team from Ireland not progress close to the group stages? We've managed to get a team into the group stage of the Europa League," Baraclough told Goal.com. "There's no reason why a club from this country can't make it very close, whether it's a playoff game or it's into the group stages and why not this year? That's the goal. You've got to reach for the stars at times."
Interestingly however, in contrast the the brimming optimism and appetite of Baraclough, O'Neill, the man who defied history, has expressed a conversely deflating view, suggesting that Irish clubs will continue to struggle in European competition. It is fair to say that O'Neill's cynicism is not without reason. Irish clubs have routinely under-performed in Europe to an extent where the League of Ireland is sandwiched between the Moldovan and Lithuanian leagues. The highest-ranked Irish club in terms of coefficients is St Patrick's Athletic, who find themselves placed 222nd in the ranking, while the others are sparsely scattered down to 406th place in a rankings table of 450 places.
Indeed, Sligo Rovers themselves are ranked 309th, behind Bangor City of Wales. Despite their resurgence in domestic competition, there is no denying that the Bit o' Red have performed abysmally in recent European competition. Since 2009, they have qualified for the Europa League on three occasions, but have yet to register a win. However, despite the protestations of O'Neill, there is ostensibly reason for optimism, for in the years preceding Shamrock Rovers' group stage qualification, various Irish clubs have demonstrated impressive resilience in European competition.
Shelbourne enjoyed a number of significant European campaigns, most notably in 2004, when they became the first Irish club to reach the third qualifying round of the Champions League; Derry City took the scalp of two-time Uefa Cup winners IFK Gothenburg in 2006, before narrowly losing out to Paris Saint-Germain in the first round of the Uefa Cup; St Patrick's Athletic similarly reached the first round in 2008 before losing out the Hertha Berlin. The Saints reached the playoff round of the Europa League a year later.
|There were certainly no raised eyebrows when I talked to the lads about getting to the group stages
- Ian Baraclough
Ian Baraclough takes a dim view of the negativity surrounding Irish clubs in Europe and prefers to accentuate positives instead. In his first season in charge of the Bit o' Red, the former Scunthorpe United manager failed to progress past the second qualifying round of the Europa League, losing out to Slovakian outfit Spartak Trnava. Nevertheless, he is adamant that his team demonstrated their ability to adapt and compete. "We certainly competed with a team that were expected to beat us last year," he said, reflecting on the tie. "And were it not for a five-minute moment of madness, I think we could have gone through. I thought we were the better team in both legs and should have come away with something more."
The 2012 Airtricity Premier Division champions have started the 2013 season with terrifying efficiency, winning each of their opening nine competitive games without fuss. They have notched a remarkable total of 25 goals in that period, conceding just twice and Baraclough insists that his players are taking the prospect of European football very seriously. "We've got players all across the board that want to go into those European games and show the world that they're good players," he stressed. Moreover, he has expressed resounding belief in the strength of his squad and revealed that his optimism regarding the competition is shared. "I spoke briefly about the Champions League at the start of the season and there were certainly no raised eyebrows when I talked to the lads about getting to the group stages," he said. "We've assembled a strong squad and there is a lot of competition for places and that just spurs people on to greater heights."
Baraclough's hunger to improve is insatiable and that trait has manifested itself in his team, which continues to evolve. Since taking over in February 2012, Baraclough has complemented the foundation that had been laid by Paul Cook with the acquisition of talented young players such as PFAI Young Player of the Year nominee David Cawley, as well as Republic of Ireland youth internationals Ryan Connolly and Seamus Conneely. He has also brought some of the best talent in the League of Ireland to the Showgrounds, such as defender Evan McMillan and winger Aaron Greene, while in English striker Anthony Elding, he has secured an experienced goalscorer. "I think not only have I brought some good young players in," Baraclough said. "But Anthony [Elding] at 30-31 was a good addition experience-wise. He's certainly a goal-scorer, he's proving that at the moment. Even at his age, he's excited about going to play in Europe and that's great. He's not just here to pick up money, he still wants to achieve."
The Sligo boss believes unflinchingly that success in Europe is within their grasp, and, given the squad at his disposal, it is easy to see why. But it is Ian Baraclough's palpable sense of defiance that sets him apart. He has displayed a uniquely positive stance in a domestic scene where mundane realism is the order of the day and is resolute in his belief that his team can push the boundaries. "You only have to get a little bit of luck with the draw," he beams. "A little bit of luck on the evenings of the games and you could find yourself one or two games away from a playoff game and the group stages. Why not?
"If you think, 'well we're in the Champions League and if we get one game out of it that'd be great', that's what's going to happen – if you reach for mediocrity, you'll only get mediocrity."
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