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The League of Ireland is my Frankie. When I write about it I know what Joe means when he says, “when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way.” I agree with him that when “a man turns his back on his family he ain’t no friend of mine.”
All the same, I know this League I’ve loved for so long is horribly flawed at a fundamental level. To be blunt about it, it just ain’t no good. Why kid ourselves?
Dundalk’s defeat by Slovan Bratislava on Tuesday night showed what a parlous state domestic football is in at present. Dundalk are overwhelmingly dominant in the League of Ireland. They appear to be heading for a fifth title in six seasons and their financial resources and strength in depth outstrip those of their rivals by a huge margin.
Slovan were hardly the most fearsome of opponents. The Slovakian champions were knocked out of this year’s Champions League by Sutjeska Niksic of Montenegro, who last week exited the Europa League after losing both legs of their tie against Linfield. It’s five seasons since they reached the competition group stages and even then they lost all six games there. They only held a 1-0 lead after the first leg.
Yet this distinctly average outfit from Europe’s 31st-ranked league travelled to Tallaght and beat Dundalk 3-1. All four Irish teams have been knocked out of the Europa League before the play-off round. Luxembourg, Armenia, Northern Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania and Kazahkstan will all have representatives at that stage, but we won’t.
When Dundalk lost their Champions League second qualifying round tie 4-1 on aggregate to Qarabag there was some talking up of that opposition’s strength. But the Azerbajian champs were knocked out in the next round of the competition by APOEL Nicosia of Cyprus. Cork City were knocked out by Progres Niederkorn from Luxembourg while St Pat’s also lost first time out to Swedish side Norkopping.
Shamrock Rovers were the League’s best performers by some distance, but nonetheless went out in Europa League qualifying round two against Apollon Limassol of Cyprus. It has been a poor European campaign for Irish clubs. A League currently ranked 37th out of 55 in Europe looks likely to slip even further at the conclusion of this season.
This is nothing new. Last season only six leagues performed worse in European competition than the League of Ireland. We’re only as high as we are overall because the multi-season nature of the rankings means they still reflect Dundalk’s magnificent, and wholly untypical, Europa League run in the 2016-’17 season.
There has been some wildly optimistic talk about next season’s new format second division Europa League giving League of Ireland clubs a chance to make eye-catching runs. But only the 15 leading leagues will be in the top flight. There will be many stronger leagues than ours represented in the new competition.
Fantasies about overcoming the Danish, Swiss, Serbian and Swedish leagues seem ill-founded when at the moment our league lags behind those of Liechtenstein, Albania, North Macedonia and Moldova. League of Ireland clubs are Eurotrash.
That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t support the competition. There is still decent entertainment to be found there. But it does mean that people like myself who constantly exhort you to sample the local fare should show a little humility. A glimpse at foreign stands during the annual League of Ireland odysseys reveals that few leagues at our level pack in the crowds.
It’s time to stop making exaggerated claims for the League of Ireland. Every Ireland manager is told he must show his face at domestic fixtures and keep an eye on the players there with a view to elevating them to the senior squad.
Jack Byrne, easily the best player in the League, is in the initial Irish squad for the forthcoming game against Switzerland but will have to play at a higher level before he can seriously
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