The Dundalk and Cork City players in European action this week don’t just represent their clubs — they represent the League of Ireland.
As such, their recent results represent an upturn in the fortunes of the domestic game of a kind not seen for many years.
One consequence will be a rise in the national league’s Uefa coefficient, the best measure of the health and wellbeing of Irish football — a better measure, in my opinion, than the fortunes of our national team.
This Uefa coefficient is an accumulation of points based on our league representatives’ results in European competitions every year, aggregated over five years.
Until this year, we’d been doing badly, very badly.
Our coefficient dropped from 29th in 2010 (at the end of the full-time era for our top clubs) to 41st last year.
And, worse, the 2015/16 tally of 0.7 points brought us in at a low of 50th out of 55 — ahead of only Georgia, the Faroe Islands, Andorra, and San Marino.
But hey, who cares? We made the Euros, baby.
Actually, football people do care.
That is why most Irish fans, no matter where they were from, probably celebrated each of Dundalk’s goals against BATE as if they were scored by their own team.
The same fans will also want City to go through tonight against Genk in a match that, it’s worth noting, sold out three days ago.
So, yes, we do care.
We also care about our players.
We care about the skilfully brave Stevie O’Donnell whose leadership at Dundalk over the past few years — and which he showed again in exemplary fashion on Tuesday night — is worthy of the highest praise.
This is the same player who spent an annus horribilis with Cork City during a troubled period back in 2009, before scoring the winner to put Shamrock Rovers into the Europa group stages two years later. From earlier spells at Galway and Arsenal, he has already made an epic voyage across the waves of Irish football.
We also care about players such as the explosive Gearoid Morrissey at the heart of the Cork City side. A product of Ringmahon Rangers’ fine schoolboy club, Morrissey spent his mid-teens at Blackburn Rovers.
His return home at 18 helped inspire City to the First Division title in 2011.
Goalkeeper Mark McNulty, the ‘Peter Pan’ of Irish football, was there too, as was Ian Turner. These players helped bring City back to where their loyal supporters wanted — back to nights like tonight.
Alan Bennett was here before, some 11 years ago, when Cork City were trying to overcome Slavia Prague at the same stage of the same competition, then called the Uefa Cup.
City lost that second leg 2-1 but not long afterwards won the league before Bennett moved on to Reading, to international caps, and to captaincies at various clubs throughout the English leagues.
There will be nobody who cares more about the result of tonight’s match than Benno.
I met Alan before the start of this current season at a UCC soccer colours night where we discussed the level at which Dundalk and City are currently playing.
European results, we agreed, are the real measure. And, whatever happens tonight at Turner’s Cross, both clubs have not been found wanting in that regard this season.
They and the other League of Ireland teams, deserve more backing than the recently announced €5,000 per club from the FAI. But maybe things are improving on that front too.
Ten years ago, the FAI didn’t seem to care about great European results, so perhaps even that modest sum — and welcome initiatives such as the new underage leagues — are signs the FAI are starting to back the league more.
I hope so, as the endeavours of Dundalk and City boosts the argument that, with support, our league can and will prosper.
Neal Horgan is a former league and cup winner with Cork City
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