“That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day”
As happens every summer, the league’s love affair with European football once again took over our usually quiet Thursday nights, consuming those of us who support and report on the League of Ireland.
Like most relationships, it will run a bumpy course. We will visit foreign shores and see things we will have never been before. There will be unparalleled highs and crushing lows on this great journey but, almost inevitably, like most years we will be left heartbroken and reaching for the tissue box to dry those tears when it all goes south (or north in the case of Pat’s and Bohs who face Icelandic opposition).
We have been down this road before and fear this probably won’t end well. Unless you’re a Shamrock Rovers’ fan (who knows what it feels like for the romance to endure that bit longer), too often dreams have turned into nightmares and it turns out to be another mismatch, if you’ll pardon the pun. Worse still is when we think we’ve finally found the one; the right balance to go the whole way; and then, all of a sudden, we draw Deportivo La Coruna in the final round of the qualifiers and realise this one is going to slip through the net as well.
Despite the heart breaks, our optimism never fades. Each year we return with high hopes.
But up until last year, we didn’t quite know what we were hoping for. We always figured we were out of our league and maybe cause a few problems for one of Europe’s bigger names before packing up our toys and heading for the exit door.
To continue the metaphor, the best we hope for was a hug at the door, or a kiss on the cheek.
But things may have changed now.
The summer of 2011 was certainly one to remember for Hoops’ fans and players alike. If ever two entities clicked, it was Shamrock Rovers and European football last year. At the start it was only ever supposed to be a summer fling – the thought of a club from the Airtricity League still playing European football come September was unheard of before last year.
Realistically Rovers’ achievement is unlikely to be repeated any time soon. But if we have learned anything from the experience, it’s that we can and should be ambitious.
Okay so the affair fizzled out after a while and any idea of the romance existing beyond Christmas soon quickly disappeared but there were plenty of highs to take away from the whole experience. Happy memories that should be cherished by all fans of the league, regardless of what colours you dawn on a Friday night.
The wonderful thing about the league is that its highly-fluctuating manner means the majority of clubs can have dreams of mixing it with the best of them in Europe at some stage, be it this season, or in the not too distant future. The best example here would be Drogheda United who have gone from being Premier Division relegation candidates last year to now possessing serious European aspirations.
The quote at the start seems particularly fitting this week. Like our clubs’ brave endeavours on the continent, Patrick Kavanagh was a man who suffered his fair share of heart break. His work can be easily applied to what many players, managers and fans must have felt as the lofty dream of European football was extinguished for another year.
Moreover Kavanagh was a Monaghan native. We can only give our best to the heartbroken Mons’ supporters and hope we see them again soon.
While the extract above comes from a poem that chronicles the course of a relationship and the painful (and inevitable) break-up, parallels can be drawn between this and the perilous European journey facing Irish sides.
From the very beginning, there is a sense of the danger that looms. For St Pat’s and Bohemians, dangers like FC Twente from the Dutch league, or Norwegian giants Rosenborg loomed until both sides discovered they were seeded for the draw. Shamrock Rovers, terribly unlucky not to be seeded, could face the likes of Dynmao Zagreb or FC Basel in the champions League draw. Sligo will have to wait until the after the first round qualifiers to discover their Europa faith.
Credit to both Pat’s and Bohs, they have given themselves a chance of progression, albeit Pat’s more so after their 1-0 win.
But there are other dangers outside difficult opposition. With budgets so tight in the league these days, the thoughts of lengthy flights to Eastern Europe will have a lot of club chairmen counting the pennies. Every club wants Europe, but undoubtedly in some cases, the journey can up end up costing a club far more than it brings in.
Other things can conspire against you. For Romeo and Juliet, it was interfering parents. For St Patrick’s Athletic last year, it was the PFAI and players who felt they weren’t being treated fairly. Fixtures can also pile up unmercifully with Thursday night games meaning league games can’t be played until the following Saturday or Sunday. Player fatigue is another inevitable drawback.
Despite all these, a top four finish remains one of the main objectives of Airtricity clubs.
The European football/love analogy is wearing pretty thin at this stage so I will conclude on an optimistic note. Shamrock Rovers have shown Irish football can leave its mark on a bigger stage. For the sake of the game we should all get behind the clubs participating in these qualifying rounds.
We might find that match made in heaven yet.
Sam joined Extratime for the 2011 season and is now the site's features editor. He is based in Dublin and covers all the clubs in the capital. He is also prone to the odd Drogheda game. If you would like to contact Sam, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.