Irexit is awful. Airexit doesn’t work. Loiexit is even clunkier. All things considered, I think we might as well just settle for Feckit.
Notwithstanding a smattering of memorable nights and shock results down all the years, culminating in Shamrock Rovers’ unprecedented breakthrough to the Europa League group stage in 2012, League of Ireland clubs generally travel to the continent more in hope than expectation.
This year, the rude awakening came early for Cork City and St Pat’s and, while the Hoops did better by reaching stage two, their no-show in Tallaght against Odds BK always made the hope of a three-goal comeback in Norway look like the unfeasibly tall order it subsequently proved to be.
It was a different story for UCD. Qualifying as a relegated side, courtesy of Uefa’s Fair Play regulations, was already an improbable achievement before the Students proceeded to raise eyebrows by successfully negotiating the first hurdle and then confounded all expectations by putting it up to Slovan Bratislava in Slovakia.
Coming home with a credible 0-1 defeat inevitably raised hopes of a miracle night in Belfield but, after pulling one back to make it 1-3 on aggregate, a late collapse on Thursday saw them succumb to a 5-1 defeat, making for a 6-1 aggregate scoreline which, over the course of the two legs, flattered the winners as much as it reflected very harshly on the admirable efforts of Collie O’Neill’s team.
In truth, four games in Europe was four more than College could ever have dreamed possible when they were dropping out of the domestic top-flight last October. No wonder O’Neill was able to see the upside of a “mentally and physically draining” experience. “We’ve had a brilliant month and the experience will stand to these players,” he enthused.
Understandably, Stephen Kenny visibly struggled to glean any such positives when he faced the press in Oriel Park after Dundalk had been knocked out of the Champions League by BATE Borisov the previous night. More than most gaffers, Kenny is inclined to wear his heart on his sleeve, and even the stoniest of media hearts would have gone out to him as, with evident emotion, he sought to come to terms with the crushing disappointment of the scoreless draw which ended his side’s European interest after they had done so much impressive heavy lifting in 1-2 first leg defeat in Belarus.
The key thing to understand here is that this wasn’t another familiar case of heroic failure on the part of a League of Ireland side up against ostensibly superior opposition. In the Borisov Arena, Dundalk had gone toe to toe with a team of serious Champions League pedigree, insisting on staying true to the purist footballing principles which have made them such a formidable force as well as a joy to watch in the League of Ireland this season and last.
The rich promise of that away performance and his own knowledge of the quality of the players at his disposal were what had led Kenny to promise, in advance of the second leg, that his team would seek to “outplay” the visitors rather than adopt the lower-risk but tempting strategy of keeping things tight for as long as possible and then seeking to nick the one goal they needed to advance.
So, perhaps even more disappointing than the bald fact of their exit on Wednesday was that Dundalk never really got to show what they can do on the night, albeit in large part because, after their wake-up call at home, BATE showed newfound respect for the opposition by refusing to let the men in black and white have a moment’s peace on the ball.
The repeated sight of Richie Towell, probably the League of Ireland’s most outstanding talent, being harried into facing his own goal and dropping the ball off to his back four summed up the intensity with which the visitors felt they had to imbue their performance.
Had they not been so wasteful in front of goal — where the oft-criticised Lilywhites defence also excelled in terms of last-ditch blocks and clearances — it’s true that BATE might have been home and hosed by the break. But they weren’t and, lest we forget, it was in large part thanks to Dundalk’s superb effort in the first leg that the tie still hung in the balance right up until the last kick of the 180 minutes, the League of Ireland champions still just that one goal shy of a result which would have sent shockwaves around Europe and made sceptics about the domestic game here at home really sit up and take notice.
he ‘what ifs’ don’t end there. Hungarian side Videoton’s narrow extra-time elimination of TNS from Wales would have given grounds for confidence that Dundalk could have progressed still further in Europe, perhaps even following Rovers into the group stages of the Europa League and benefiting from the kind of financial windfall which would have had the potential to transform the club and its atmospheric but outdated home.
Crazy dreams? Not before kick-off on Wednesday they weren’t, which is another reason why Stephen Kenny looked so devastated after his side had failed to deliver the result everyone associated with Irish football craved.
Instead, of course, we will now be subjected to the usual breast-beating and finger-pointing about why the League of Ireland once again retains no presence in European competition before the month of July is out. Whisper it, but the fact that it’s a part-time, semi-pro league might just have something to do with it.
But not, despite all the uninformed criticism and intermittent upheaval, a uniformly bad league — or anything like it — as should be underlined tomorrow when Dundalk must pick themselves up for a crucial top of the table clash against Cork City, the side which pushed them all the way to that memorable climax to the title race last year.
Having had their interest briefly pricked by the fleeting glamour of Europe, the casual observers might once again be looking the other way. Their loss and more’s the pity because Oriel Park will once again be a field of dreams.
McClean debate needs mutual respect
It’s probably just as well that, unlike in America, the convention in England is not for the national anthem to be played at the drop of a sporting hat, otherwise James McClean would be in for a season of serial controversy at West Brom.
As it is, his decision not to face the flag while lining up with his new team mates in the States last week, has pretty much ensured he’ll be a marked man for, shall we say, more strident opposition supporters in the Premier League over the coming months, certainly if the initial uproar on social media is anything to go by.
The suspension of Rotherham defender Kirk Broadfoot for 10 matches for verbal abuse after a misconduct charge following an incident with then Wigan player James McClean means the Derry man is further in the spotlight.
But while you can admire McClean’s cojones in sticking by his principles, knowing he was likely to bring the wrath of his club, twitter and the terraces down upon his head, that’s not the same as condoning his action.
When the Derryman explained his decision not to wear the poppy in a letter to his then club Wigan, he did so in such a thoughtful, articulate and respectful way that he succeeded in disarming many of the very critics who have now returned, with renewed frenzy, to the fray.
Presumably, his reasons for declining to face the flag during the national anthem were rooted in a similar sensitivity to the experiences of his own community and, in particular, to the horrors which were visited upon the town he loves so well. But, as those pushing the peace process never cease to remind us, no one group of people has a monopoly on suffering as a result of the Troubles. And, indeed, the thought strikes that, just two years after the Bloody Sunday massacre, and not a millions miles from where McClean now makes his new football home, 21 people were killed and nearly 200 hundred injured in the Birmingham pub bombing atrocity.
It’s a cliche, I know, but taking all reasonable steps to develop mutual respect and understanding seems to me the only meaningful way to hope to move beyond conflict and away from the tyranny of extremes.
That’s not to say that people should simply forgive and forget. But there’s all the world of difference between maintaining respect for one’s inherited history and allowing oneself to become a prisoner of the past.