Shamrock Rovers start their Europa League Conference group stage with a game against Djurgardens of Sweden in Tallaght Stadium. It's the fourth time an LOI club has qualified for European group stage football and the previous three all have a lot in common.
They all won back to back-to-back championships that year, they all started their European campaigns before entering the Europa League and they all struggled and failed to win the league the following year. Let's look at what happened and see why this year may be different.
LOI clubs in European football: What Shamrock Rovers can expect
2011-2012 Shamrock Rovers
2009 was a huge year for Shamrock Rovers. Tallaght Stadium opened and new manager Michael O'Neill brought Rovers to their highest finish in nearly a decade when they were runners up to Bohemians. They went one better in 2010 winning their first title since 1994. Rover would repeat in 2011 but it was their European campaign that year that people will remember. Their Champions League campaign saw them knock out Flora Tallin before Copenhagen proved a step too far. In the Europa League play off, Rovers fought back in both games to beat Partizan Belgrade thanks to Stephen O'Donnell's penalty in extra time.
With history made as the first LOI club to reach the group stages in Europe, Rovers struggled in a very tough group and lost all 6 games with Tottenham Hotspur, PAOK and Rubin Kazan with the highlight being Stephen Rice's opener against Spurs in White Hart Lane. Rovers finished their domestic campaign on 28 October but had 3 games in the Europa League after that with the last being played on the 15th December. 9 days later Michael O'Neill left to become manager of the Northern Ireland senior men's team.
Stephen Kenny was quickly installed as Rovers boss and he started the season with 4 wins and a draw as Rovers looked to win their third title in a row. Bookmakers had made them heavy odds on favourites with one well known firm opening a market on how many leagues in a row they would win.
The first crack appeared on Good Friday when they were thumped 5-1 by St Pats. They never really got in a winning rhythm after that, suffering heavy defeats away to eventual champions Sligo Rovers and, most crucially for their fans, Bohemians before the end of June. Rovers went out of Europe meekly against Ekranes of Lithuania and after a home defeat to Bohs left them 13 points off the top with 6 games to go, Kenny was sacked.
His assistant Stephen Glass took charge for one game, a defeat to Shelbourne in the FAI Cup. The experienced English manager Brian Laws was brought in to steady the ship but his first game saw Rovers lose the EA Sports Cup final 3-1 to Drogheda United in Tallaght. Rovers ended up in 4th and failed to qualify for European football for 2013.
Stephen Kenny may have had a torrid time in charge of Shamrock Rovers but he wasn't long out of work with Dundalk's new owners appointing him ahead of the 2013 season. Having built almost a completely new team, Dundalk were the surprise packets of the season and finished runners up to St Pats. In 2014 and 2015, Dundalk won the league ahead of Cork City. It was the start of an epic rivalry with City and Dundalk being the top two clubs in the league and the FAI Cup from 2015-2018. In the 2016 season Dundalk won their third title in a row and made their own bit of European history too.
Dundalk squeaked by FH of Iceland in the opening round of the Champions League qualifiers and lost the first leg of the third qualifying round to perennial group stage qualifiers BATE Borisov before earning one of the best wins ever by an Irish club with a 3-0 score line in the second leg in Tallaght.
Legia Warsaw were too strong in the CL play off but Dundalk had done enough to qualify for the Europa League groups. They started that campaign brilliantly with Ciaran Kilduff equalising late away to AZ Alkmaar to earn the first Europa League point for an Irish club. Two weeks later they beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in another famous European night.
The games came quick and fast then with Dundalk playing away to Zenit St Petersburg on Thursday the 3rd of November and the FAI Cup final against Cork City less than 70 hours later. A clearly shattered Dundalk team lost in the 120th minute. Their European season ended on the 8th of December after 4 straight defeats.
The 2017 Dundalk season wasn't a disaster in the mold of 2012 Shamrock Rovers but losing the opening President's Cup game 3-0 to Cork City set the tone for the season. Dundalk lost 8 times in the league (compared to a total of 9 in their 3 league winning seasons before this) and never threatened to challenge Cork City on the way to their title.
Hopes for more success in Europe were high but Dundalk lost in extra time to Rosenberg. Cork once again beat Dundalk in the Cup final and Dundalk winning the league cup was seen as scant consolation for the dominating team of previous years.
Dundalk would return to championship winning form in 2018 and 2019 and that 2017 runners up finish stopped them winning 6 in a row. The Europa League group stages required a level of intensity, mentally and physically, that was far above what was required to win the League of Ireland. It took a long while for Dundalk to recover the following season and by then, a very good Cork City side were out of reach.
2020 was weird for everybody, but for Dundalk it was bananas. By the end of August, Dundalk had lost 3 of their 9 league games (half the shortened season) and were out of the Champions League, having lost 3-0 to Celje of Slovenia in a behind closed door game in Hungary. Vinny Perth was sacked and in came Filippo Giovagnoli for his first ever club coaching role. The Italian guided Dundalk to wins over Andorra's Inter Club, Moldova's Sherriff (on penalties) and Faroe Island's KI to qualify for the Europa League Group stages.
Thanks to the pandemic, the LOI season ended much later than usual and Dundalk's cup final win over champions Shamrock Rovers was on the 6th of December. Their European campaign was completed four days later with a defeat away to Arsenal. All 10 of their European games were played behind closed doors which added to the strange feeling around the achievement. Dundalk ended the league campaign in third place - closer to the relegation points total than the league winners'.
Dundalk started the 2021 with Jim Magilton as sporting director and a not-always-clear-who's-in-charge duo of Giovagnoli and Shane Keegan in the dug out. Without a win in their opening 6 games, both left the club with Magilton taking charge on an interim basis. The squad make up was all wrong with several of their high profile imports being particularly poor. Vinny Perth, sacked a year earlier, came back in June and somewhat steadied the ship but Dundalk ended the season in 6th place. Off field issues had dominated the season and before it ended, new owners were in charge. Dundalk's 2021 highlights were in Europe where they beat Newtown (Wales) and Levadia Tallinn before giving Vitesse Arnhem a scare.
It's hard to fit into just a few paragraphs how the incredible Dundalk team of 2014-2019 self combusted over two years and still managed to qualify for the 2020-21 Europa League groups.
2022-23 Shamrock Rovers
How will Shamrock Rovers cope next year? The challenges have changed with the introduction of the Europa Conference League. Their group doesn't include teams at the level of Spurs, Arsenal or Zenit St Petersburg. The World Cup has forced the European group stages to be finished quickly this year and it'll be wrapped up before the LOI season finishes.
All of these should help Rovers next year as they look to qualify once more. The introduction of the ECL makes it far easier for the Irish champions to qualify for a group stage and with Rovers being seeded again next year (should they win), they'll expect to reach the ECL groups *at a minimum*. History isn't on their side, but they'll have the resources to compete again next year and they'll be disappointed if they can't compete.