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What does new UEFA competition mean for the Irish League? All you need to know about the Europa Conference League

  • Europa League will now only be a possibility for the Dankse Bank Premiership champions
  • The league winners will be a potential two wins away from European group stage football
  • Other three teams all enter Europa Conference League


James McLaughlin scored a late winner for Coleraine against La Fiorita in the Europa League last summer.

James McLaughlin scored a late winner for Coleraine against La Fiorita in the Europa League last summer.

James McLaughlin scored a late winner for Coleraine against La Fiorita in the Europa League last summer.

As the race for the Irish League's European places hots up, it's worth remembering that the UEFA landscape is set to shift once again this summer with the introduction of a brand new competition.

The UEFA Europa Conference League (yes, that is the official title) will become effectively the third tier of European competition, behind, of course, the Champions League and Europa League.

But what exactly is it and how will it impact the Irish League teams?

Here's a quick guide:

How many teams will the Irish League have in Europe next summer?

That's a good place to start. There were just three teams in UEFA competition last summer; champions Linfield, runners-up Coleraine and Irish Cup winners Glentoran. This summer, though, there will once again before four Irish League sides qualifying.

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That means the Danske Bank Premiership's play-offs are set to return in their usual format (providing we get a 38-game season), with teams from fourth to seventh taking part (Irish Cup winners dependent) for the lucrative fourth European spot.

Update: Of course, we now know that champions Linfield will be joined by Coleraine, Glentoran and one of Larne, Cliftonville, Crusaders or Glenavon in European competition this year.

Where is the Irish League ranked compared to other European domestic leagues?

Thanks to the impressive results over the last two summers, Northern Ireland is currently up to 42nd in the UEFA rankings - 10 places higher than two years ago when they lost their fourth spot for one season. However, for the purposes of this summer's qualifying matches, they are in 48th as it is based off the rankings at the end of the 19/20 season.

Which teams will play in the Europa Conference League?

There will be teams from all 55 of UEFA's member nations in the qualifying section of the tournament, so it's not going to be a dumping ground for clubs from the lesser nations.

The top five nations in the UEFA coefficient ranking (currently the big five of Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France) are all designated to have one team each entering the Play-Off round.

It will be those nations' lowest European qualifier that gets plonked into the Conference League.

This year, those include the Premier League's seventh placed side Tottenham, Jose Mourinho's AS Roma and Bundesliga side Union Berlin. There will be no Spanish side in the competition this year because Villarreal, who were due to enter the Conference League, got parachuted into the Champions League by winning the Europa Leaue.

Nations ranked sixth to 15th by UEFA will all have two teams going straight into the UEFA Europa Conference League (UECL) qualifying rounds, with nations ranked 16th to 51st (bar Liechtenstein) all sending three teams. The bottom five nations will send two teams each.

And then, of course, there will be the teams dropping down from the Champions League and Europa League.

Which competitions will the Irish League teams play in?

This is the crucial bit. For the foreseeable future (the latest UEFA access list plans up until the end of the 2023/24 season), the Irish League champions will be the only team able to play in either the Champions League (UCL) or the Europa League (UEL).

Here's what the new European paths look like:

Danske Bank Premiership champions - Linfield: The Irish League champions will be a potential two wins away from a group stage place in one competition or another. Take a deep breath and continue for the explanation.

They will enter the first qualifying round of the Champions League. If they can make it through one round in the top competition and are then knocked out, they would drop first into the Europa League third qualifying round. A win there would land a UEL play-off spot and with it a guarantee of a group stage spot, in either the UEL or the new UECL.

One round of progress in the Champions League coupled with defeat in the UEL third qualifying round will see the champions moved into the UECL play-offs.

Progression through two rounds of the Champions League would guarantee, in a worst case scenario, UECL group stage action.

So any progress in the Champions League will mean the Irish League champions are guaranteed three bites at the European cherry.

Immediate defeat in the Champions League first qualifying round will see the champions bypass the Europa League and go straight to the Europa Conference League second qualifying round, three wins away from the group stage.

As is currently the case, the separated 'champions path' through qualification should further enhance the chances of a group stage spot by keeping them away from the likes of Tottenham in qualifying.

Other Irish League teams - Coleraine, Glentoran and play-off winners: Unless Northern Ireland manage to rocket their way into the top 29 in the UEFA coefficient rankings, the other three European qualifiers (Irish Cup winners, league runners-up and play-off winners) must enter the Europa Conference League in the first qualifying round, facing four knock-out ties until the group stage.

How does the UEFA Conference League work?

From next season, the number of teams in the Europa League group stage will reduce from 48 to 32, the same number as the new Europa Conference League and the Champions League, until the top competition's new 36-team structure is set kick in in 2024 and it's all change again.

Like the other two UEFA competitions, the top two teams in each UECL group of four make it through to the knock-out rounds.

It's not as simple as those teams making up the last 16, however. The group runners-up will face an additional knock-out round against the teams who finish third in their Europa League groups and drop down to the Conference League. From then on, it's the usual European formula of two-legged knock-out ties leading to a final at a pre-determined venue.

The matches will be played on Thursday evenings, with three separate kick-off time slots.

What's the point of it?

UEFA's stated aim is to increase the number of member associations represented in the group stage of European competition. UEFA say the competition means at least 34 of the 55 member nations will be represented in the group stages, as opposed to the current minimum number of 26.

So it's made for nations exactly like Northern Ireland, who have never sent a club into the group stage of either the Champions League or the Europa League. Linfield's run to the Europa League play-off last summer was the closest an Irish League side has come.

In theory, the new competition should make their task easier.

"This competition was borne out of ongoing dialogue with clubs through the European Club Association," said President Aleksander Čeferin.

"There was a widespread demand by all clubs to increase their chances of participating more regularly in European competition. This has been achieved with a strategic approach, and in accordance with UEFA's objective of having both more quality and more inclusivity in our club competitions."

What's the prize money for the new competition?

As Linfield, Coleraine and Glentoran know very well from last summer, the European competitions carry vast sums of prize-money. The amount of Euros on offer for the new tournament is yet to be announced but if the current financial standards are anything to judge by, it could be assumed that it will be very significant in Irish League terms.

However, former UEFA chief executive and current president of European Leagues (the association of professional football leagues in Europe) Lars-Christer Olsson has a rather different warning.

“You will play against less interesting teams, which probably means you don’t fill your stadiums," he told Sweden's Expressen newspaper. "At the same time, the indication has been that you won’t receive any extra financial support from the Champions League. It risks becoming a financial loss-making deal for the clubs participating in the Conference League.”

Time will tell but either way, the Irish League's chances of sending a side into the group stage of European competition has never been better.

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