Belfast Telegraph

Title-chasing bosses are well aware of the impact continental cash makes


Oran Kearney and Stephen Baxter
Oran Kearney and Stephen Baxter

By Graham Luney

Stephen Baxter and Oran Kearney may be fierce rivals as they aim to get their hands on the Gibson Cup but they are singing from the same hymsheet when it comes to vital funds from European qualification.

Irish League clubs are set to benefit from a bigger cash windfall from Uefa, particularly the league champions thanks to changes in the European qualifying process.

Should the Danske Bank Premiership champions lose in the first qualifying round of the Champions League, they will now enter the second qualifying round of the Europa League.

They should be guaranteed a minimum £701,000, with that figure rising if they can draw a big name opponent or win on the continent.

Crusaders, who are two points ahead with five games remaining, and nearest challengers Coleraine are gunning for the title and there is now the added incentive of more European riches.

Crues boss Baxter said: "This is absolutely marvellous for Irish League clubs competing in Europe. Firstly, it's a real privilege for us to play in Europe because big clubs are denied the opportunity, and the financial rewards, particularly for league winners, are now phenomenal.

"European football is a huge benefit to the players who can test themselves against top quality opposition.

"Coleraine and ourselves have qualified for Europe, which is fantastic, and it allows us to invest in the facilities and squad.

"There's still an assumption in some quarters that the Irish League is not progressing as much as it should be and it needs to be more professional.

"It's a part-time league, but we at Crusaders are taking steps to introduce a new model in which we will be around three-quarters professional.

"There's a commercial gym going in the new McDonald Centre and lots of different plans to improve the facilities.

"All this will hopefully give us a better chance of qualifying for Europe and competing with the top clubs should we get there.

"We have seen how club structures work in countries like Estonia, Lithuania and Albania and I think you've got to put new structures in place to change the fortunes of the club."

Coleraine chief Kearney said European football was his side's key goal from day one this term.

"Europe is a vitally important target for us and, up until last season, we hadn't been there for about nine years," explained Kearney. "It helps with all aspects of the club and for years we watched while top clubs got stronger and the challenge was there for us to bridge that gap.

"It's taken a monster effort from us to reach Europe and to do it last season for the first time in my tenureship was massive for me and the club.

"I never really talk about targets for the season but the big one in our changing room was Europe and it's fantastic for the club and players we have achieved that.

"It's even great for the supporters because I know they enjoy travelling to watch their side.

"For us to qualify for Europe and that pressure to be removed with five games remaining is wonderful.

"Last season we reached a Cup final and were disappointed to lose because of course you want to win trophies, but qualification for Europe is a big prize too and it certainly helps the chairman when he's studying the accounts.

"It puts us in a position of strength and allows us to build for the future."

Belfast Telegraph

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