St Patrick’s Athletic and Bohemians both welcome Icelandic opposition tonight as they respectively host IBV Vestmannaeyjar and Thor Akureyri. IBV will be no stranger to the Saints as the sides met at the same stage of last season’s competition with Pat’s going through 2-1 on aggregate. Bohemians have never encountered Icelandic opposition in Europe and will be hoping for a favourable outcome to the tie.
The draw brought me back to the 1995/96 UEFA Cup when Shelbourne drew Akranes from Iceland. The mid nineties were a desperate time for Irish clubs in Europe but I remember thinking Shels would be able to get through this particular tie. A look through the history books provided positive reading as Dundalk had defeated Fram Reykjavik 5-2 on aggregate in the 1981/82 Cup Winners Cup while Shamrock Rovers had proved far superior when beating the same opposition 7-0 in the 1982/83 UEFA Cup.
Dundalk travelled to Reykjavik and were narrowly defeated 2-1 despite leading at half time. However a 4-0 win at Oriel Park helped turn the tie in their favour. Rovers were successful in both legs winning 3-0 in Reykjavik and 4-0 at home. It seemed Irish teams were by far the dominant force between the two countries.
Alas the Shelbourne-Akranes game turned into an absolute nightmare with Shels going down 3-0 in both legs ensuring an early exit and a comprehensive 6-0 aggregate defeat. It was a tough time for young League of Ireland fans as this result showed the League had fallen behind a country that we were easily dismissing the previous decade. At the time Shelbourne were one of the top teams we had in Ireland and yet teams from Iceland were capable of dismissing them with ease.
It seemed that Irish clubs were being totally dismissed by UEFA as this was the first year, and would stay the same until 1998/99, that the champions of Ireland were denied entry into the Champions League. Dundalk would draw Malmo that season and St. Patrick’s Athletic and Derry City would be pitted against Slovan Bratislava and Maribor in the following seasons’ UEFA Cup as opposed to participating in the Champions League competitions.
It was a grim time indeed and fans of the League were quick to point out that our sides should have been admitted to the Champions League - as in 1998/99 when St Patrick’s Athletic drew Celtic and secured an excellent 0-0 draw in front of 58,000 fans in Celtic Park. Pat’s did not go through the tie as they unfortunately lost 2-0 at Tolka Park a week later but it was a vast improvement on the 6-0 trouncing Shels encountered a mere three years previously.
Things had improved dramatically by the time Shels next came up against Icelandic opposition. KR Reykjavik were drawn in the 2003/04 Champions League qualifier and recent performances by our sides in Europe indicated Shels would be well able to match them. It was not looking good as Shels trailed 2-0 in the second half of the first leg but two late goals helped ensure a 2-2 draw. A scoreless draw the following week in Tolka Park was enough to see Shels through and indeed they very nearly made the group stages of that year’s competition before falling to Deportivo La Coruna of Spain in the third qualifying round.
And on to last season where Pat’s managed to defeat IBV 2-0 at home following a 1-0 reversal in the first leg. This was the start of a successful venture by Pat’s as they made it past Shakhtor Karagandy of Kazakhstan before falling to Karpat Lviv of the Ukraine in the third round.
The record between Irish sides and their Icelandic counterparts is as close as can be with four victories for both and two draws out of the ten games. Best of luck to both clubs tomorrow and in the return games in Iceland in a week’s time. Here’s hoping this is the beginning of a long run in this season’s Europa League. After last season fans will be expecting at least one team to reach the group stages.