BY FEARGAL BRENNAN
With pre-season in full swing for most English clubs at the moment, it can often come as a surprise that the best of the best from neighbouring Wales and Northern Ireland have already begun their campaigns.
Due to the demands of European qualification, the League and Cup winners from both countries are required to quickly adapt to the rigours of competitive European ties in June and July.
No team from Wales, except for those that playing in the English League system, or Northern Ireland, receive a direct spot in either the Champions League or the Europa League. They are instead required to navigate a testing path of qualification to the group stages, facing teams that are often in mid-season, in far flung locations against some of the most unknown names in the European game.
Linfield, Glenavon and Cliftonville of Northern Ireland, Connah’s Quay, Bala Town and Llandudno all qualified for the first qualifying round of the Europa League for 2016-17.
Their route to qualification can give an idea of how much the carrot of European football can both stimulate their respective leagues, but also actually damage their chances of qualification.
In the example of the teams from the NIFL and the League of Wales, those seeking to get into the Europa League group stages can also harm their chances for qualifying for the exact same stage next season by playing competitively during pre-season. However, they are faced with the exact same problem each season as they chase Europe – and so the cycle continues.
With both Wales and Northern Ireland, Bala Town and Llandudno finished second and third in the Welsh League; Linfield qualified as runner-up in NIFL Premiership, with Glenavon qualifying as Irish Cup winners.
However, both Connah’s Quay and Cliftonville both qualified as winners of a Europa League play-off within their domestic league. The idea of a play-off is to increase interest in those leagues amongst fans, extending the season and stretching the play-offs from third to seventh place teams. However, this extension means that teams play a longer season, shortening their recovery time before the European qualifiers. But again these teams have little option as it is their only route into Europe.
Cliftonville played their play-off final on May 10th, Connah’s Quay on the 14th, and both played their first Europa League qualifying matches on June 30th.
Bala Town, Llandudno, Linfield and Glenavon all fell at the very first hurdle of qualification and
Connah’s Quay and Cliftonville both exited at the second qualifying round stage, despite earlier heartening wins.
So another European journey ends early for these UK sides, and if history is anything to go by there is a little chance of an ingrained pattern changing.
The Northern Irish qualification record is awful, as the only team to reach the first round proper in the UEFA Cup/Europa League in the last 20 years was Glenavon in 1995-96, losing 7-0 on aggregate to Werder Bremen.
The Welsh record within this period is even worse, with no team qualifying for the group stages/ first round proper, the closest being The New Saints, who reached the play-off round in 2010-11 before losing to CSKA Sofia.
The tale of Champions League qualification follows the same pattern of failure for both nations. Earlier this month, Crusaders of Belfast entered the second qualifying round of the Champions League, where they were hammered 9-0 by FC Copenhagen. The New Saints qualified for the same stage, as Welsh champions, and they too were defeated, 3-0 on aggregate by Cypriot side APOEL.
In terms of records in the Champions League, neither nation has ever had a side qualify for the group stages.
The rationale behind the poor performance of both the Welsh and Northern Irish on the European stage comes from a number of factors, but primarily a lack of quality and some number-crunching.
The issue with quality can be simply looked at in terms the sheer inability to retain the best players produced by each country, as the elite want to play at the highest level with the highest economic gain.
At EURO 2016, Wales had no representatives from their national league in their squad, while Northern Ireland only had veteran goalkeeper Roy Carroll of Linfield in their ranks. The realistic truth is that players destined for a high level can simply never be retained. In the example of Wales, those tipped for big things are often snapped by English youth academies, or recruited by big hitters such as Swansea City and Cardiff City. In Northern Ireland, word soon gets out if they have a hot prospect on their hands and the English clubs come calling. With some NIFL sides having informal deals in place with English clubs for their talented youngsters. Alongside this, Welsh and Northern Irish clubs often find the step up in quality in European qualifiers as something of a shock to the system, with a lack of competitiveness back home.
Despite securing their place in the qualifiers due to their domestic success, both nations pit their best against seasoned European sides. In the example of this season FC Copenhagen, APOEL, IFK Goteburg and AIK (Sweden) all saw off Welsh and Northern Irish sides. Whilst none would be considered as European heavyweights, all have a far greater European pedigree than their opponents.
The other significant issue blocking the path of Welsh and Northern Irish sides and European qualification is the qualifying cycle they are trapped in, due to their UEFA co-efficient.
Unfortunately for the domestic sides of both countries they will not benefit from the impressive performances of their national sides at EURO 2016, as the co-efficient is based solely on club performance.
The Northern Irish and Welsh UEFA co-efficient for this season, based on the last four seasons, positions them at 44th and 50th respectively, out 55 UEFA nations. This places them firmly at the bottom of the food chain, meaning that qualification will continue to last between six and eight games. Even the minor successes of Connah’s Quay and Cliftonville this season will have no great effect on the co-efficient, as to enter qualification at a later stage both nations would require a dramatic upturn in fortune.
The European future looks rather bleak for both nations domestically, as the cycle shows little chance of changing, however, these nomadic European experiences do appear to be part of each club’s identity, and ironically without them some clubs would become extinct.
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