Boom! Boom! And out went the lights in Europe for Irish football this season, writes Liam Mackey
The worst of it for Cork City on Thursday night in Norway was that the evening was almost a carbon copy of what had happened at Turner’s Cross the previous week.
In both games, City began full of energy and intent, looking at least a match for, if not at times even better than, their opponents. But, for all the promise of their early good work, a combination of defensive errors and clinical finishing had Rosenborg two-up and cruising before the break in both the first and second legs.
In truth, the tie had effectively been decided at the Cross by the concession of those two away goals. It might have felt like rough justice for City on the night but, nevertheless, the outcome chimed with the superior qualities you would generally expect of a bigger and better-resourced European club, one which can afford to have a household name like the rejuvenated Nicklas Bendtner doing for Rosenborg what he would have been hoping to do for Denmark at the World Cup in Russia had injury not intervened.
Even if the win in Cork flattered the visitors somewhat, it can never be just down to a matter of luck that a side goes away in Europe, scores twice and keeps a clean sheet. To achieve that, you require experience, tactical acumen, enough quality attacking players to create and then make the most of the chances which come your way and a defence which is going to do nothing other than make life hugely frustrating for the opposition.
And from the potent finishing of Levi in the first leg to the indomitable defending of Reginiussen in the second, the Norwegian champions ticked all the critical boxes.
City, by contrast, would have needed to be absolutely clinical upfront while pretty much eliminating all error at the back, to have had more than just a fighting chance of going through. But in Cork and again in Trondheim, they were found wanting in crucial moments at both ends of the pitch and were punished accordingly.
With the League of Ireland’s New Firm, Cork City and Dundalk, having now departed Europe on the back of heavy aggregate defeats, the standing of the domestic game has also shipped a heavy blow.
But happy as supporters are to big things up when the going is good — recall the justified delight and excitement when first Shamrock Rovers and then Dundalk reached the group stages of the Europa League — we should be careful about being too quick to talk it down when the wheels come off.
Already, the line is being peddled that Dundalk and City and the League of Ireland in general have been “found out”, when the reality is that even the most successful and thriving clubs in the domestic game will always have their work cut to progress through the rounds in Europe and go beyond turning a few nights of epic achievement into something more sustainable.
In his customarily insightful way, it was a subject Stephen Kenny addressed in the aftermath of what was an uncharacteristically bad night at the office for the Lilywhites in Larnaca.
“But when we beat teams that are ranked above us, it doesn’t automatically mean we are better than them. When we beat BATE Borisov, Maccabi Tel-Aviv or go away to AZ Alkmaar and get a result or Rosenborg, we don’t automatically think we are at their level. We just know we are capable of going and putting in great performances. Likewise, just because we lost, defended poorly and got punished doesn’t make us a bad side.”
All that, I believe, is demonstrably true. The serial success of Kenny’s inspirational reign since coming on board at Oriel Park speaks for itself.
Here is an enlightened football man who has already shown what can be achieved when things are done right in the League and whose impact at Dundalk not only lifted that struggling club to giddy heights but prompted Cork City, under John Caulfield, to raise their levels to a point where the rivalry between the two teams has served to mutually enhance standards and create a thrillingly competitive narrative in recent years.
But both managers also appreciate the significant challenges which, before an Irish team even takes to the pitch against decent European opposition, can serve to impose a serious block on ambition.
The outflow of top talent from the League of Ireland has clearly also had a detrimental effect on Cork City, most obviously in the loss of Sean Maguire who, over a couple of seasons at the Cross, evolved into one of the best and most complete strikers the domestic game has ever seen.
This is not to make excuses after the fact.
It is simply an inescapable reality that the huge shadow cast over the SSE Airtricity League by the game in England extends in its vast influence and impact not just to drawing away the crowds but also the best players.
It was ever thus and, barring the advent of something almost unimaginably revolutionary, probably ever will be. The debate about finding a cure for all that ails the League of Ireland has been well ventilated here before and, trust me, will be again. (But, just for starters, peace breaking out between the FAI and the PFAI would be helpful).
But that’s not to say that a disappointing season in Europe means that Irish club football is suddenly left bereft of talent and drama and entertainment.
The deep problems to do with finance and facilities which continue to disfigure and disrupt the domestic game are, worryingly, never far from the headlines but, in places like Turner’s Cross and Oriel Park and the RSC — to name just a few of the more atmospheric and well-attended venues — the League continues to reward the faithful with football and footballers of quality and distinction and contests to stir the soul.
And if it’s a romantic blockbuster you’re after, Cobh won’t sell you short.
So a bit of perspective, please. Not the #greatestleagueintheworld, no. But not the #basketcaseproblemchild either.
But the unconverted don’t have to take my word for it. Now that the action for the rest of the season is confined to these shores, here’s a mad thought: Why not pop along to your local ground and make up your own mind?
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