Champions League qualification a bigger task than ever for Dundalk
New structures and an extra qualifying round hamper sides from weaker leagues
Dundalk will get the trophy that comes with the club’s 13th league title in a couple of weeks’ time but they will have to wait a while longer for their real prize: another crack at the substantial money on offer from the Champions League next summer.
The rules have changed and the potential rewards have been revised upwards since Stephen Kenny’s men earned about ¤6.5 million in 2016. On that occasion they made it to the play-off round of the Champions League where they lost and so went into the group stage of the Europa League where they won one game and drew another.
Three years on, they would receive almost precisely half as much again, ¤9.82 million, if they could repeat the trick.
But doing that has been made much more difficult by the addition of an extra Champions League qualifying round and the earlier entry of clubs from much wealthier leagues.
Kenny’s side made it to the final round of qualifying that summer before they came up against Legia Warsaw whereas Cork City got the Polish champions first time out this year.
Legia were themselves beaten by Slovakia’s Spartak Trnava who were, in turn, beaten by Red Star Belgrade whose away goals defeat in this season’s play-off round prevented the title winners from the leagues ranked 12, 13, 14 and 15 making it safely through as they had been seeded to.
Being from the lowest ranked league, Salzburg might be considered to have been the softest target but the club’s turnover in 2016/17 is reported to have been ¤107 million.
Dundalk’s worst case scenario is the more or less the fate suffered by Cork City this year with John Caulfield’s side exiting first the Champions League qualifiers and then the ones for the Europa League without managing so much as a goal while the club still picked up ¤820,000 in prize money.
The bye City received in the second qualifying round of the Europa League gifted them the ¤20,000 over the ¤800,000 minimum the champions of Ireland are now guaranteed each summer but deprived them of a potentially more winnable game that would have been worth an addition ¤240,000.
That is surely the least Dundalk will be targeting although, knowing their manager, he will be aiming rather higher than that.
The new structures have made Champions League group stage qualification almost a pipedream with the number of places available to qualifiers reduced from 10 to six, four of them reserved for the champions of “smaller” leagues.
Rich get richer
All of this was done so as to accommodate a demand from the European Clubs’ Association that the top four sides from each of the continents’ four richest leagues go straight into the group stage of the competition.
Amongst the many ways in which the 32 clubs who compete at that stage of the competition are rewarded is a fund worth ¤585 million which is allocated according to club ranking with the lowest ranked getting .108 million and the top ranked, 32 times that. The rule is specifically intended to ensure that the rich get richer.
All of this was proposed before the election to the Uefa presidency of Aleksander Ceferin who said that he would review the proposals if elected. If he ever did, it made no difference for they were implemented as originally envisaged.
By the standards of the Irish game, of course, even the crumbs from the European table are huge. Dundalk’s winnings in 2016 completely distorted the revenue table for the entire league but get through that one round and the million or so euro secured will, by itself, be just about equivalent to the average turnover of a Premier Division club.
Dundalk’s is significantly higher but the meagre ¤100,000 it will receive in official prize money for winning the title does not make much of an impact and neither adequately rewards the club for the added value it has brought to the league over the past years. Nor does it do anything remotely significant in terms of helping the club to better equip itself for European competition.
That though, is more than 20 per cent of the entire prize fund available to league clubs which, they queue up to point out, is partly offset by the commercial revenues the association keeps, fines and other charges.
Uefa also provides the bulk of the funding for the league’s new underage structures with the FAI adding ¤250,000 to its ¤825,000 to give ¤1.15 million to clubs who, the association says, estimate that the leagues cost them ¤1.4 million.
In terms of Europe, of course, the Irish clubs can have few complaints about how many rounds they have to get through to reach Europe’s top table after a year in which the league’s four participating representatives managed to get through just one between them. If Dundalk do improve significantly on that next summer, though, expect Abbotstown to be claiming a good deal of the credit again.
The reality, though, is that if the association’s finances were half as rosy as FAI chief executive John Delaney likes to say they are, then Irish football’s problem child is still suffering from the neglect of its distracted parent.
By the standards of the Irish game, of course, even the crumbs from the European table are huge
Dundalk’s Pat Hoban scores the equalising goal against St Patrick’s Athletic to seal the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division title at Oriel Park, Co Louth.