Belfast Telegraph

Irish League clubs must dream of European group stage: Ward

 

By Graham Luney

Crusaders defender Sean Ward believes Irish League sides can start dreaming of making the group stages of European competition.

The Crues take on Slovenian side Olimpija Ljubljana in the Europa League second qualifying round this week and if they can taste victory a third qualifying round clash against BATE Borisov or HJK Helsinki will give them a chance to secure a play-off battle to make the group stages.

It's a daunting mission for any Irish side to progress that far in Europe but since 2011 Michael O'Neill's Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk have accomplished it.

There is also a huge financial incentive for Crusaders and the north Belfast side have introduced a three-quarter full-time culture to sustain the income streams from Europe.

"I don't think the group stages of European competition is a bridge too far for our clubs" said Ward.

"If you had asked me 12 years ago would any of the Irish teams progress to such an advanced elite level I would have said no chance.

"But the League of Ireland embraced summer football, the players are fitter, players from England and Scandinavia strengthened them and if they can do that, our clubs can try to replicate that. It will take time and it's a long process.

"Maybe this is the start of something good for Northern Irish football because young players can see its value, they can see players like Gavin Whyte getting a move across the water.

"I think the league is in a good place and you would never say never in terms of a team reaching the group stages of the Europa League in the future. Why not? You've got to strive as high as you possibly can and sometimes you need to be realistic. If you're just going to accept what current expectations are then you won't make progress."

The financial figures from European qualification are mind-blowing from an Irish League perspective, particularly from this season as defeat in the Champions League saw the Crues handed this Europa League fixture.

Even if the Crues lose this fixture, they are guaranteed at least £700,000 from their European exploits this summer.

That means significant funds can be invested into the team.

Former Linfield and Glentoran ace Ward added: "The club has massively invested in the players as it has long-term plans to stay successful and the European games are so valuable for the club in how they can invest for the future.

"It is a wonderful experience for the players and I've never been to Slovenia, it's a great journey in our football education. You really cherish these opportunities to play against top-class European opposition. You want to play at the highest level you can.

"The manager (Stephen Baxter) signed a five-year full-time deal and the players going three quarters full-time will benefit the club in the long run.

"The players love it, the craic is good and in order for it to grow the club needs to be successful. The board has invested heavily in the team and it's important the team brings success to the club."

Olimpija Ljubljana will kick-off tomorrow's first leg as favourites to progress but the Crues hope a spirited showing in Slovenia will make the return leg at Seaview the following Thursday an intriguing battle.

"I think a big part of the club going full-time is that the management and coaching staff would have much more time to prepare and the manager has watched this team against Qarabag and a number of times on YouTube," added Ward.

"They played the first game of their domestic campaign and lost but they are a very strong side. They have won their league two years in a row and did their domestic double last season. They will be technically very good.

"It's about keeping the tie alive and bringing them back to Seaview with something to play for."

Belfast Telegraph

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