If a Cypriot club can do it, why can’t we?

So Cillian Sheridan, playing for APOEL from Nicosia in Cyprus, is the sole Irish representative in the Champions League group stages for 2014/2015.

If a Cypriot club can do it, why can’t we?

The necessity of playing in European club football does not need to be restated here. But looking at the Irish national team that played against Oman last Wednesday, it is very worrying to find a distinct lack of exposure to European club football throughout the side. According to my (semi-dodgy) internet sources, of the 10 outfield players that started the game for Ireland, only Wes Hoolahan made it into the double figures in European club appearances, all garnered whilst playing with Shelbourne FC in the League of Ireland.

The return of Shay Given to the Irish set-up, however controversial, is the return of a man deeply experienced at every level of football, including European club football, which he experienced 70 times, mostly for Newcastle. The reality these days, sad though it may be, is that the kind of experience European football that Given, Duff or Robbie Keane gained seems no longer attainable for Irish players in the UK.

So what do we do? The match in Turners Cross last night between Cork City and Shamrock Rovers featured a player who (if my sources are correct) has more European appearances than all of the starting 11 for Ireland last Wednesday night, bar Given, combined. Dan Murray, captain of league winning teams at Cork in 2005 and Shamrock Rovers in 2010 and 2011, played over 35 times (he, himself, does not know the exact number) in European club competitions. Murray’s most memorable match was against his favourite team, Tottenham Hotspur, at White Hart Lane in the Europa League in 2010.

“I was up against Defoe and Pavlyuchencko that night mate, with Aaron Lennon on the right and Di Santo on the left,” he told me. “When they took him [Di Santo] off they brought on Andros Townsend. That lad can run.”

That was the year Rovers had achieved the unthinkable, making it to the group stages of a European competition – the first and, to date, only time for a League of Ireland side. They had, of course, beaten Partizan Belgrade in an epic affair to qualify. There were four former Cork City players in the Rovers team that night, including Billy Dennehy, who has returned to City this year, Pat Sullivan, who scored an absolute rocket, and Stephen O’Donnell who scored the winner. But it was Murray I was most delighted for.

The camera followed O’Donnell seconds after he scored, but in the background down the other end of the pitch I spotted Dan on his knees punching the ground. Somehow, I felt, he was exorcising the demons we carried.

Cork City, Shelbourne, St Pat’s, Bohemians, Drogheda and Derry had all made strides in the European game in the decade beforehand. Each of us had suffered from their European and full-time exertions, experiencing an aftermath of serious financial difficulties. Thus the hard-won improvements in the Uefa coefficients for the league seemed to be rendered meaningless. Rovers’ incredible victory in Belgrade meant our efforts were not in vain.

For his part, Murray was a key member of the Cork City squad that, between 2004 and 2008, played 22 times in Europe. Afterwards he experienced the turmoil as the club entered examinership and near extinction. Throughout all of this he was, and still remains, a leader of players. In fact his leadership skills are so impressive, they often steal the attention away from his footballing ability.

During my time Murray would always be one of the first names picked by his fellow players in five-a-sides training matches (which I deem to be the litmus test for a professional footballer). Whilst Murray possesses two great feet, is very commanding in the air and has fantastic organisational and communication skills, the reason you want him in your team is simple. You are more likely to win, and carrying in awkward and heavy goalposts and cones and other punishments for losing would, most likely, be avoided with Murray in your side.

The experience top Irish players get playing in the Premier League and Championship in England is not to be underestimated. And yet the European club game remains an untapped resource for Irish football. Any future plan for Irish football needs to accommodate both of these routes to top level football.

At the moment our modus operandi appears to be solely geared towards getting our players to England. This is a shame because, as Cillian Sheridan’s Cypriot team have shown, there is room in the group stages of the Champions League for clubs from smaller nations.

The Cypriot example is even more pertinent because Murray scored the decisive goal for Cork City in the Champions League qualifier against fellow Cypriot side Apollon Limassol in 2006. If they can do it, why can’t we.

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