Success in Europe brings with it a whole new set of challenges, as the Premier Division champions look set to discover
Although they exited the competition this week, Dundalk’s Europa League run has been an incredible leap forward for League of Ireland football on the European stage.
They will now take a small window of time to reflect on another successful season, but perhaps they will also need to ask themselves how they should deal with becoming the biggest fish in the League of Ireland pond.
Cork City claimed the FAI Cup in a dramatic game that looked destined for penalties, but there was little doubt that Stephen Kenny’s side had been feeling the effects of their European exertions.
Regardless of Thursday’s result, the players will be getting themselves ready for next season already, as their strength and conditioning coach Graham Byrne recently revealed; the squad are eager to improve, eager to push on, and stuck to their diets with an incredible discipline. Back in January, on the night of the soccer writer’s awards, the players even avoided alcohol (including those nominated for awards) as their pre-season training began the next day.
Dundalk’s success means that they will be dealing with the usual issues of being the target that other teams aim for in the league and the benchmark for success, but there are some other, less familiar challenges after their unprecedented run in the Europa League – they are now the domestic cash cow.
Andy Boyle has already confirmed his departure, while Daryl Horgan may well follow him to Preston, leaving Kenny to find replacements for two vital players in his set up.
Again, that’s hardly new for him, given he lost Richie Towell in similar circumstances last season, but continually finding stars only to lose them to stronger leagues is a balancing act that even the biggest of European powers has struggled to pull off.
Equally, as they try to find goals and creativity to fill the Horgan-shaped hole in their side, they can expect to be held over a barrel and asked for the most they can afford to pay; all the other teams in the league know they have money now, and they want a slice of the pie. Bray are first in the queue, reportedly asking for a figure of €100,000 to seal a deal for Dylan Connolly and breaking a League of Ireland record in the process, but they won’t be the last.
It could be a cautionary tale ahead of his switch, given how long it has taken the former League of Ireland top scorer to settle in England. Injuries have played their part, but a rare berth in the starting team was afforded to him for the U23s this week, meaning he still has quite a way to go to force his way into the manager’s plans on a more regular basis.
However, it is unrealistic to expect that a player who has shown their quality will not want to prove it at the highest level they think they can make it. Few could make it in the competitive world of football if they didn’t back themselves to make it into any team they set their sights on. Chris Forrester, for example, has stepped up to the pace at Peterborough United with incredible ease, and looks set to move on again for even bigger and better things.
Chris Forrester has flourished since his move to Peterborough United.
Having tasted European football and being given a chance to experience life in the international set up with Martin O’Neill and the Ireland side, Boyle and Horgan may well have a better foundation to make the step up across the water, but the risk will still be there for them both. For the club, there are similar risks in terms of setting up a solid foundation.
Pursuing European success is a costly business, and one that often comes with little or no financial return. They wouldn’t have to look too far for a short history lesson on that front; Shelbourne and Bohemians can tell them the woes of overspending and running up debts that can’t be paid.
Further afield, Villareal’s overspending saw them plummet into the Segunda, and despite Deportivo La Coruña’s incredible league win in the 1999/00 season was little comfort when they took a trip to the second tier a few years later. Real Zaragoza pushed the club to the brink of collapse chasing lost days of European glory, while Anzhi Makhachkala also spent beyond their means, and now have to learn to live now on a much smaller budget than before.
Like Deportivo La Coruña were for Wes Hoolahan and company, the challenge of Legia Warsaw proved to be a step too far for Dundalk. However, Kenny’s team pushed the Polish side close and they went on to hold their own in a Champions League group that had two authentic European heavyweights in Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid.
As George Hamilton mused on commentary for RTÉ on Wednesday, perhaps in a few years we will be watching a side from Ireland compete at the highest level in Europe, but it’s more likely that will remain a mere day dream.
The next steps for Dundalk on and off the pitch will be more difficult than the ones they have taken to get to this point. Back when he was still Puff Daddy, Sean Combs noted that the more money you come across, the more problems you see, and that will be true for Dundalk now more than ever.
There will be tough decisions to be made as the club, in particular if they happen to progress. Should they invest in improving their training facilities? Do they address the facilities at the ground to bring in new fans and keep growing their support? Can they keep the playing squad competitive despite bleeding talent? Can they afford to reward the people who have given so much of their time, expertise and hard work to make the team a success?
As Connacht have already learned this week, success is not all it’s cracked up to be.