Belfast Telegraph

We need help to be Euro knockouts, say bosses

 

By Graham Luney and Steven Beacom

Rival managers Stephen Baxter and Barry Gray are in agreement when it comes to Irish League fortunes in Europe - it's never an easy mission but the clubs can punch above their weight and land knockout blows.

This summer the Crues, Cliftonville, Glenavon and Coleraine have fought like tigers on their continental adventures but a victory against full-time professional opponents over two legs has been out of reach.

After losing 9-0 on aggregate to top-class Bulgarian side Ludogorets in their first round Champions League qualifier, Stephen Baxter's side will go again against Slovenian side Olimpija Ljubljana in the second round of the Europa League qualifiers next week.

Elsewhere, Glenavon were unable to build on their stunning 2-1 home win over Molde and crashed to a 5-1 defeat in the second leg.

Cliftonville took the lead on their travels against Danish side FC Nordsjaelland but lost 3-1 on aggregate.

Coleraine were eliminated too having lost 2-0 at home to Spartak Subotica following a 1-1 draw in Serbia.

Even Derry City's incredible 2-1 win against Dinamo Minsk in Belarus wasn't enough to progress as the hosts clung on to a 3-2 aggregate win.

It's not easy to shake off the losing habit. There have been several successes in the last eight years, the most recent celebration coming in 2015 when the Crues overcame Skenderbeu and Linfield beat NSI Runavik.

Reds chief Gray argues that the Irish FA can lend clubs a helping hand while Crues boss Baxter feels our teams could do with more luck when draws are made but he still views European action as a huge learning process.

Gray called on the Association to raise their game and he doesn't believe summer football would end the run of defeats.

"If they want to make Irish League sides competitive in Europe they should invest in the four teams who qualify and let us come back in earlier and put some money in the pot that allows teams to do that," said Gray.

"Where do I get a challenge match in July that prepares me to play a team in Europe?

"Also, we have a relatively successful international side and I wonder if the senior staff with their experience could be used in some sort of support network for clubs in Europe whether it be with strength and conditioning, training camps or providing extra information on opposition sides if clubs wanted it.

"What about ahead of our European games the IFA taking managers from Irish League clubs out to watch the opposition teams with an experienced IFA analyst? Our clubs don't have that resource but the international sides do. I think that would help prepare our teams better for what is a really tough challenge against full-time sides.

"People talk about summer football making a big difference but I'm not convinced it would necessarily improve our results in Europe.

"I don't think the answer is changing the season. I think it is changing the mindset and making sure the IFA are totally behind our teams in Europe in every sense. More support from the authorities could make a difference."

Baxter argues that many of the top European sides are simply on another level.

"If you look back at the history of this over the last 30 years, there are very few wins for part-time Irish League football clubs and in the last five or six years we have seen some victories," said the Crues boss.

"I remember someone calling me in Lithuania after winning a qualifier and it was a long time coming. You felt like you were making history and it lifts people.

"With money coming to the clubs they can take strides forward. It's a very lucrative place to be and it's good to dine at those tables but the competition, depending on your draw, can be very hard on you.

"In our group for the Champions League draw every one of those teams would have hammered us. They were top tier teams from Celtic to Rosenborg to Ludogorets. They are of an exceptionally high standard so it sometimes depends on the draw.

"If you are up against a very good, experienced professional team it can be very difficult and I just treat it all with the huge respect that it deserves and we put a lot of work into preparation.

"We held Ludogorets to 2-0 in the second leg and they could have literally beaten us 10-0 in both games, that's how good they are.

"We felt it was like a moral victory holding them to 2-0. But we are learning from these experiences and it can make the football club stronger.

"But we are up against it, there's no mistaking that."

Belfast Telegraph

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