Irish football sinking fast as all teams exit Europe at first hurdle

All League of Ireland representatives have fallen at the first hurdle in continental competition, emphasising the dilapidated state of the domestic game
By Ronan Murphy

Late in the summer of 2011 the League of Ireland took what seemed to be at the time a huge leap forward. Shamrock Rovers, under Michael O'Neill, eliminated Partizan Belgrade in the qualification rounds of the Europa League and earned their place in the group stage alongside Tottenham Hotspur, Rubin Kazan and PAOK. The Hoops, unbelievably, led at White Hart Lane thanks to a goal from Stephen Rice. Dreamland. They ultimately went on to concede three times on the night and in turn lost all six group games. Two years on, Rovers' European adventure is a distant memory and unlikely to be repeated.

On Thursday evening the last remaining League of Ireland club was dumped out of Europe as Derry City slumped to a 3-0 home defeat against Trabzonspor. The Candystripes battled hard to overturn a 4-2 first leg deficit, but the quality of the opposition shone through as Derry's part-timers tired in the second half. In truth, the FAI Cup holders never looked like scoring, despite manager Declan Devine's pre-match claims to the contrary. Devine and Sligo Rovers manager Ian Baraclough said all the right things ahead of their ties, but on the pitch, their teams lacked bite and belief as both clubs failed to take the games to their opponents. Baraclough chose makeshift right-back Jeff Henderson rather than the rampaging Alan Keane in the first leg at the Showgrounds when his team should have been looking to attack Norwegian champions Molde, by way of example.

Ireland's bleak coefficient future
The poor performance of League of Ireland clubs in Europe this year will have a serious impact on the league's coefficient next season. Not one club managed to navigate their way past their initial opponents and in eight matches, Irish teams lost six times, with St Patrick's Athletic and Drogheda United each picking up one draw. The points system is based on the performances of the previous five seasons of European participation and next season, the League of Ireland will lose its 2008/09 coefficient of 2.500, which will be replaced by this year's dismal 0.250 total. As a consequence, the coefficient for next season will drop from 7.375 to 5.125, meaning that the league's standing will fall considerably.
However, it wasn't just the mindset of the managers and players that led to the dismal failure of Irish clubs in Europe this year. The league as a whole has been on the slide since the end of full-time contracts. Next season will see the successes of the 2008-09 campaign removed from the Uefa coefficients, resulting in a further slide down the rankings table. Two draws from a combined eight games in Europe this season will be of little help when it comes to seedings for next year's competitions, resulting in a vicious cycle where Irish teams are paired up against stronger opposition.

The fact that the league is part-time now also means that a lot of the talent leaves the country as soon as the opportunity arises. While exciting younsgters like Chris Forrester and Barry McNamee were in European action this season, more and more players are following the likes of Padraig Amond and Paddy Madden to England. The fact of the matter is that players can carve out better careers playing in the lower reaches of English football than in Ireland, despite the draw of annual European football.

Similarly, the part-time nature of football in Ireland means that our players are under-prepared for the rigours of their European encounters, coming up against seasoned professionals, and in the case of Trabzonspor, a team fielding five full international players.

Irish football is in crisis, and most of the problems stem from financial issues. The wages of the 2000s were excessive, but the FAI must try to ease the burden on clubs. Increasing the prize money for the league would be a good start, but this could prove difficult for the FAI, who would have posted a deficit in 2012 were it not for prize money from the national team's participation at the European Championships.

The FAI finances are also further hindered by the inability to sell premium packages for the Aviva Stadium, and failure to quslify for the 2014 World Cup or Euro 2016 could ruin not only the association, but domestic and grassroots football with it. If this does happen, the league's talent will further dwindle, leaving 2013's European experience the norm for Irish clubs, who should be reaching for the stars, according to Ian Baraclough when he spoke to Goal in April.

At the time, he said "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."

Mediocrity looks a certainty for the foreseeable future.