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Aug 24, 2004

Irish eyes are smiling

The history of knockout competitions worldwide is littered with heroic feats of David versus Goliath. Most have turned out to be mere blips on the historical trajectories of the teams involved - the big guys dust themselves down and resume normal service; the little guys bask in the glory of their short-lived fame before returning to their proper place within the footballing food-chain. Rare is it that a vastly uneven pairing in important knockout competitions has served as a genuine turning-point for a club, let alone an entire country.

But when Referee Alain Hamer blew his whistle in the Raizor Stadium at 8pm BST on Tuesday, he will bring the curtain up on what may just prove to be one of those milestones. Dublin side Shelbourne were 90mins away from the first ever appearance by an Irish club in the Champions League group stages. This was the single biggest game in the history of Irish club football, and ranks up there with key performances by the international team at the World Cup and European Championships as the most important game in Irish soccer.

To give the game its David v Goliath credentials, you need only look at the respective standings of Irish and Spanish club football. Spain has the No.1 ranked league in Europe, if not the world. Ireland is ranked No.40 - below the likes of Moldova, Belarus and Liechtenstein. Whilst Deportivo have a solid record in UEFA competitions - losing just one of their 13 home Champions League games to-date, and reaching the semi-finals last season - Shelbourne's record is mediocre, having managed wins in only 4 out of their 42 European outings to date.

It would therefore be easy to dismiss Shels appearance in the third round of the Champions League this year as a mere fluke. However, to those familiar with Irish club football there is a belief and a hope that this is no mere blip. Irish clubs have been slowly but surely laying the foundations for European success over the last number of seasons, with Shelbourne leading the way.

Last year, the domestic teams in Ireland switched to a Summer League - intended to place clubs in a better position to compete in European competition. At the same time a number of clubs have gone full-time and are exploring ways to increase their revenue.

The FAI, usually more prone to forgetting that it has any responsibility towards domestic football, has also done its bit. This year it introduced a licensing scheme for stadiums to ensure they meet UEFA standards for European club competitions. These and other changes have been made across Irish football, and all with the primary intention of improving performances in Europe.

Whilst it's early days yet, there are signs that these seeds are starting to grow. Although Bohemians and Longford Town disappointed in their European outings this year, Cork City became the first Irish team ever to progress to the third leg of a European competition. They swept aside Malmo and NEC Nijmegen in the early rounds of the Inter-Toto Cup this summer, where they then drew with Nantes in the Quarter Final before finally exiting in the away leg.

Meanwhile, the build-up to Tuesday's game saw Shelbourne knockout Icelandic champions KR Reykyavik and out-play Croatian stalwarts Hadjuk Split, before taking a very creditable home 0-0 draw against Deportivo in a game that they could feasibly have won. The behind-the-scenes focus upon European success therefore appears to be paying early dividends for Irish clubs, though as Shels themselves admit, their current run has probably come a season or two early for even an ambitious club like them.

As the green shoots of UEFA success have begun to appear on the pitch, the knock-on effects on the Irish footballing public may likewise prove to have its own further impact upon future European success. Club football in Ireland is very much a poor relation in the eyes of both fans and the media. Whilst the Irish international team is praised for the passion, colour and behaviour of its fans when they follow their team around the world. The majority of these same fans are very dismissive of domestic football - preferring in the main to support English and Scottish teams from the comfort of a sofa or a barstool.

The behind-the-scenes focus upon European success therefore appears to be paying early dividends for Irish clubs.

Even the Irish Prime Minister himself persuaded the local version of 'Match of the Day' to grant him an appearance on the show so he could wax lyrical about his love of Manchester United. Imagine, if you will, the reaction in England if Tony Blair appeared on national television to reveal to the country that he was a Bayern Munich fan and had no interest in local football!

Any views on the Eircom League that can be solicited from Irish football fans are overwhelmingly negative and dismissive. With average crowds at club games in their low thousands, this view is, however, based less on actual experience of the home-grown product and more on a perception of its relative merits.

The public antipathy/antagonism towards domestic football is mirrored within the Irish media. Whilst pages and pages are given over to the English Premiership and SPL, many major national newspapers provide minimal coverage of the Eircom league, with results of games often going unreported.

At least one major paper even has a policy of not covering the local game. TV coverage is likewise all-but negligent - with the domestic season currently two-thirds of the way through, only one game has been shown live to-date, whilst the teletext service of the national broadcaster often seems incapable of reporting results correctly.

However, just as the Republic of Ireland's international form in the 1988 European Championships awoke a nation that before then had only limited interest in the fortunes of their national team, Shelbourne's run in the Champions League has likewise caught the imagination of the Irish sporting public. For the first time ever a domestic club has made front page news across a number of papers, with numerous column inches inside also devoted to the clubs performances in Europe.

Victory over Hadjuk Split started the ball rolling, and gave Shels the confidence to gamble on switching the Deportivo game from their 10,000 capacity home stadium to Lansdowne Road. The gamble worked - a club that attracts an average crowd of only 2,000 to its home games saw all 24,000 tickets snapped-up within hours.

For the first time ever ticket touts appeared in sizeable numbers at a game involving an Irish club side. But the public weren't just there to watch the Spanish team - sales of Shelbourne scarves and replica shirts rocketed, and the atmosphere in Lansdowne Road was electric.

Large numbers of people who'd never been to watch an Irish club side before in their life screamed and roared for Shelbourne as passionately as if they were at Anfield or Parkhead. Big time European football came to Dublin with an Irish team at the helm, and people wallowed in the experience. The Manchester United-loving Irish Prime Minister even put in an appearance to see the proudest night in the history of his home constituency club.

The Riazor Stadium.
The Riazor Stadium.

The match was televised live by the national broadcaster in direct competition to the Manchester United v Dinamo Bucharest game on another Irish channel. The impact the Deportivo game had upon the public imagination was confirmed when viewing figures for both matches were released: 55 per cent more people opted to watch Shels rther than United's Irish trio of Roy Keane, John O'Shea and Liam Miller. In all, 10 per cent of the entire population opted to watch Shels. For a nation where every other kid seems to own a Manchester United jersey, that statistic says it all.

Win or lose it is hoped that some of the new fans caught-up in the euphoria of the games will have their view of domestic football challenged, with a hoped-for impact on attendances around the country. No-one expects the impact to be of the level, for example, that England winning the Rugby World Cup had upon English club rugby. But in a football-mad country where very few people support their local teams, the influence can only be positive.

History may therefore cast an eye back on Tuesday's match at the Riazor stadium as a milestone in the history of Irish club football. Only time will tell whether the combination of initiatives on and off the field at club-level will continue to build a credible presence for the country within European competitions.

Meanwhile, if you can find a bookie who will offer you odds on an Irish side reaching the group stages of the Champions League within the next three-five years, I strongly advise you to take them. And remember - you heard it here first.

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