Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill: Irish League sides must have Euro vision
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has told Irish League clubs that they should strive to match the achievements of League of Ireland outfit Dundalk, who are on the verge of qualifying for the Champions League group stages.
Dundalk host Polish team Legia Warsaw tonight in the first leg of the Champions League qualifier knowing even defeat in the tie will see them enter the group stages of the Europa League, just as O'Neill's Shamrock Rovers side did in 2011.
While in recent years clubs in the Republic have made an impact in Europe and lots of money - Dundalk will earn around €15million if they reach the glamour stages of the Champions League - Irish League sides in contrast tend to either be knocked out at the first or second phase of European competition.
O'Neill, who started his career at Coleraine, insists Northern Ireland sides ought to be doing much better on the European scene and suggests ways to do it are for clubs here to adopt a more professional approach and for a switch to be made to play summer football, which is in operation across the border.
With Champions League and Europa League fixtures starting in July for Irish teams, those in the south have an advantage because they are in mid-season by then whereas, as was the case last month for Crusaders, Linfield, Cliftonville and Glenavon, a game in Europe represents their first competitive fixture of the campaign, which domestically doesn't kick-off until August.
At times some of the key players for Irish League sides aren't even available as they are on holiday, which in many ways defeats the purpose of clubs making such a big deal of getting into Europe in the first place.
"The only way our sides have a chance of improving in Europe is to work on a more full-time basis and to play summer football," says O'Neill, who has shown the way at international level after guiding Northern Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals, the nation's first major tournament in 30 years.
"When I was in charge of Shamrock Rovers you could do so much more with the players in the summer season rather than the winter time and as a result they improved."
His success at Shamrock Rovers and his views are well worth listening to. It was a surprise then that two years ago, FIVE out of 12 Irish League managers failed to turn up to a meeting he had organised to discuss local football.
O'Neill says he would welcome another discussion with Irish League bosses this season to offer his experience.
"I would like to break that part-time mentality that exists in the Irish League," he added.
"I was transferred in 1987 from Coleraine in the Irish League to Newcastle. Back then clubs were training two nights per week and playing on a Saturday. Nothing has changed here on that score, yet look how the game has changed in those 30 odd years elsewhere.
"In my view our players have to train more. If you look at Dundalk's team they are all Irish lads. They haven't got to where they are by importing players.
"There is no way that Dundalk's players are way better than the players that play in the Irish League. What they are is better prepared, they train better and are fitter because they are in season and they have more of a full-time mentality.
"I think they also really value playing in Europe. I'm not sure our lads can value it the same way if they are going on holiday when their team is in Europe.
"Irish League sides need a model to allow themselves to work more with players. What we have now is essentially full-time managers in David Healy (Linfield), Alan Kernaghan (Glentoran) and Gary Hamilton (Glenavon) but the real benefit of that would be having full-time players or as close to full-time players as you can get."
O'Neill is certain that the Irish League possesses players good enough to make the grade in cross-channel football if given the right environment to blossom in at home.
"European football is important for young players," he says. "I remember in my youth, professional clubs were looking at me for a long time but it was only when I played in Europe for Coleraine against Dundee United that teams started bidding and I got my move to Newcastle.
"We have to create an environment for our young players to show what they can do on a European stage. Our clubs have to change their ideas of what it takes to compete at that level.
"Four years ago I attended the League Cup final and Stuart Dallas was playing for Crusaders. He is now at Leeds and a Northern Ireland regular.
"It is staggering to see how far he has come in four years with proper training, strength and conditioning in a professional environment and I believe there are more players in the Irish League who could potentially do the same.
"Players like Gavin Whyte (Crusaders), Jay Donnelly (Cliftonville), Joel Cooper, James Singleton, Rhys Marshall (all Glenavon) and Paul Smyth (Linfield). I think in a more professional environment Paul Heatley and Jordan Owens (both Crusaders) could flourish too."
O'Neill adds: "I would like to meet the Irish League managers again. Part of the reason I got the clubs together was because I wanted to say to them that we didn't have enough young players playing in the league.
"Of course Irish League clubs have to try to be successful domestically but I would like to see them develop more young players.
"My research has shown that there are not enough young players in the Irish League. In the season before last, around 12 per cent of the minutes were played by under-21 players which is shockingly low for a league that has no foreign players in it. The only thing that stops a young player playing in our league is an old player.
"We have an obligation that we provide something for the young players to try and get them a career in the game.
"And I would like to say to managers here it is not all about finance. I think there is a myth that League of Ireland players are paid huge sums of money, which makes a big difference, but that is not the case.
"At Shamrock Rovers for instance we didn't pay the players off season, so they couldn't be classed totally as full-time players but we wanted them to have a full-time mentality."
On Dundalk's chances of reaching the promised land of the Champions League group stages where Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich await, O'Neill said: "Dundalk have been superb to date. In the last round to beat Bate, who had previously made the Champions League group stages, was a fantastic result.
"They now have a real shot at qualifying, but Legia Warsaw will be very difficult to overcome. I saw them beat Celtic comfortably a couple of years ago 6-1 on aggregate in the Champions League.
"Whatever happens, though, Dundalk will be in the group stages of the Champions League or Europa League which is fantastic and shows what can be done."