The advent of the UEFA Europa Conference League this year has been met with derision in some quarters in English media, with Tottenham – Champions League runners-up just two years ago – becoming the Premier League’s first representatives in the embryonic tournament. It is a far cry from the highs of that extraordinary come-from-behind win over Ajax in May 2019, yet this competition – a legacy of Michel Platini’s chequered UEFA presidency – was not meant to appeal to clubs from the highest echelons of the European food chain.
Rather, it was designed to increase the prospects of clubs from its less celebrated domestic leagues sampling European group stage football during the autumn and winter. Some countries, such as our very own League of Ireland, look set to take that chance with both hands. We may be down to one representative from the four who have partaken at various intervals in the qualifiers, but Shamrock Rovers will be more than confident of seeing off Flora Tallinn over two legs to somewhat revive memories of their qualification for the Europa League group stage a decade ago.
That was one of just three occasions when Irish clubs made it to the group stage in Europe, with two of those campaigns ending with the LOI’s representative losing all six of their matches. However, it did give the opportunity to welcome the likes of Tottenham (and Harry Kane’s first senior competitive goal for Spurs), Zenit St Petersburg and Arsenal to these shores.
If the plan was to allow clubs such as those from Ireland a more attainable chance of group stage qualification, and the enviable financial rewards which come with it, our clubs’ results from the qualifying rounds in Europe this summer suggest that the plan is bearing fruit. Bohemians and Dundalk may have fallen by the wayside in the previous qualifying round, but not without memorable results against the far-better resourced PAOK Salonika and Vitesse Arnhem respectively (plus that unforgettable Patrick McEleney goal in the Netherlands).
The League of Ireland may still be a lowly 37th in UEFA’s association club coefficient, but our clubs’ performances on the European stage over the past few weeks suggest that the ranking should improve discernibly when the 2022/23 club season begins. Indeed, we’ve crunched the numbers to show that, since the restructuring of European club competitions to create the Europa League in 2009, this has been Ireland’s most successful season in terms of qualifying results.
Qualifying ties won by League of Ireland clubs in European competition
Ireland’s Champions League qualifying record is, to say the least, depressing. Of the 17 ties that Irish clubs have contested since 2009, they have won just four – two of which were in the same summer by Dundalk in 2016, which remains the only time one of our clubs has been in the play-off round since the restructuring. Shelbourne made it to the equivalent stage in 2004, it is worth noting.
Our fortunes at Europa League level were a bit better, at least. We didn’t have any clubs partaking in the streamlined qualifiers for that tournament this year, but of the 12 previous campaigns, only once did every Irish club bow out in the first round. Of course, Dundalk (twice) and Shamrock Rovers have reached the group stage, although on none of those occasions did they come from the first qualifying round. That said, apart from last season when Irish clubs won more qualifying ties than they drew or lost, our record in the Europa League was middling.
The comparatively easier network of Europa Conference League qualifying is already bearing fruit in that it is just the second time since the 2009 restructuring that Irish clubs have won five qualifying ties in Europe – a figure which could easily rise to six should Shamrock Rovers do the business against Flora Tallinn over the next few days.
If Stephen Bradley’s side get the right result, it will mean that Irish clubs will have won 60% of the European qualifying ties in which they participated this summer – the highest win percentage since the 2009 restructuring. As it stands, 2016/17 (the year of Dundalk’s Champions League play-off participation) is the joint-most successful along with this season. Even if the Hoops lose to Flora, Ireland will still maintain its 50% win rate from last year.
Individual matches won, drawn and lost by League of Ireland clubs in European competition
Even if Shamrock Rovers are comprehensively beaten in the Europa Conference League play-offs, Irish clubs have already won more matches in Europe this summer than in any other in the modern era. The Hoops’ 2-0 win against Teuta in Albania last week was the 10th by teams from this league on the continent in 2021 – their third, adding to three from Dundalk and four from Bohemians.
Even allowing for there being single-leg ties last year as UEFA tried to rush through the qualifying rounds in a pandemic-hit format, that is still more matches won by Irish clubs in Europe than over the past three summers combined. Indeed, that statistic rings true when Europa Conference League matches alone are considered.
It is a far cry from the dismal summer of 2013, when across the two tournaments in which we had clubs entering, they lost six of the eight matches contested and drew the other two. Also, Shamrock Rovers’ consolation second leg win over Slovan Bratislava was the first Champions League qualifying match won by an Irish club since Dundalk’s legendary 3-0 battering of BATE Borisov in Tallaght five years ago.
Should the Hoops win just one of their play-off legs against Flora Tallinn, it will give Ireland a win percentage of more than 50% for the first time since the 2009 restructuring. Even if they win neither leg, it would still be a joint-best 50% along with the 2014/15 season, a summer in which Dundalk and Sligo Rovers had famous yet inconsequential wins away to Hajduk Split and Rosenborg respectively.
As you’ll have seen, I’ve written this before the fate of Shamrock Rovers is known in the inaugural Europa Conference League. However, irrespective of whether or not they get the job done, the advent of the competition is already giving Irish clubs a greater chance of recording greater results in Europe.
Sure, we’d all love to see our clubs routinely having a crack at the best that Europe has to offer, much like they did on occasion in the halcyon days of the European Cup and UEFA Cup. However, with the times irreversibly moving on, the new Europa Conference League is already working for Irish clubs on the continent, and the hope is that the summer of 2021 will not prove to be an outlying fluke, but rather a significant step forward in the League of Ireland’s rise up the European domestic leagues ladder.