Conan Byrne celebrates after Christy Fagan's goal against Legia. fot. Tomasz Jastrzebowski/Foto Olimpik
European adventure

Want to know the secret to a prolonged run in Europe? Do your homework

Conan Byrne recalls his European adventures and details why opposition analysis is so vital to League of Ireland clubs.

FUN FACT: IN European competition, I’ve scored more goals in my own net than in the opposition’s. It’s nothing to be proud of, but I can relate to how Richard Dunne feels about having an unwanted record.

Still, that doesn’t take away from the wonderful memories I experienced playing against teams from all over Europe. From the highs of scoring my first goal in Vilnius to the lows of conceding a stoppage-time equaliser in Warsaw, these trips make up a significant part of my footballing story.

Yet, I wouldn’t call my European adventures successful. One win in 11 games is certainly nothing to boast about. But anyone who thinks League of Ireland clubs suffer in either the Uefa Champions League or Europa League due to a lack of preparation would be sadly mistaken.

Having qualified as a teacher, I appreciate the value of homework. And under Liam Buckley, who I played for with Sporting Fingal and St Patrick’s Athletic, I witnessed just how meticulous he was in his preparation for these games.

After winning the League in 2013, St Pat’s qualified for the Champions League qualifying stage but then got paired with Polish champions Legia Warsaw. Dotted with international players throughout their squad, we were under no illusions that we were up against it. But Buckley, along with his staff and players, watched a lot of Legia play. We saw them attack and saw them defend. We watched how their opponents set up against them and how they dealt with Legia’s threats.

We noticed that the Polish teams facing Legia were pressing them high up the pitch and with Legia’s quality on the ball, they found it easy to work the ball quickly to expose the opposition and score goals at ease. Unfortunately for us, that is exactly what we did in our league and what made us so successful. We didn’t allow defenders to have time on the ball and more often than not, we won the ball back and kept possession comfortably. Could we do the same and go toe-to-toe with Legia Warsaw? The answer was no. So the decision was to drop deep and allow Legia to have the ball up until the halfway line and then we would press as a unit.

It worked a treat. We were compact, strong and resilient. Legia grew frustrated from early in the game. When we did have the ball, we used it well. We kept possession, thus saving our energy, and scored a marvellous goal through Christy Fagan. By 75 minutes, the home crowd were jeering their own players. And by 85 minutes, the white handkerchiefs were being waved in the crowd. In injury time, however, an uncharacteristic error from Ken Oman allowed Legia attack and Miroslav Radovic, the danger man, squeezed it through goalkeeper Brendan Clarke’s legs from a tight angle. I was utterly despondent. We so nearly pulled it off what would have been a huge result for Irish football. It was the most complete tactical performance I was involved in, in my career to date, and so close to perfection.

It is not just the managers, analysts and scouts who have to do their homework. As players, we have a duty too. Throughout my career, I have always identified every left-back who I could be up against, ensuring that I knew their strengths and weaknesses. If I didn’t know my opponent, I would have no problem asking someone about them. When Dave Campbell was St Pat’s Assistant Manager and Opposition Analyst I was regularly quizzing him on upcoming games and opponents. Some may see this as a sign of weakness. Why should I care about my opponent? But I saw it as a sign of strength.

One time where this worked well for me was in 2013 in a Europa League qualifying tie against Lithuanian Cup winners FK Zalgiris. The reason why this was one of the European games that I actually did perform well in was because I did my homework with the analysis. A lot of players will nod off or be easily distracted during video sessions – everyone has a different way of learning – but you have to want to improve yourself and be the best that you can be. Relying on your talent or technique is not enough.

In the clips of FK Zalgiris that we managed to get, Vaidas Silenas was playing left-back. A Lithuanian international at the time, he was predominantly a central midfielder but was filling in due to injury. I noticed in the match analysis that when the ball was on the other side of the pitch, he was never aware of the run that the opposing right midfielder was making. As such, he was a ball watcher! He was quick though, and often recovered to win possession back, but it was something I knew that I could exploit.

With Greg Bolger, Killian Brennan and Chris Forrester capable of spraying cross-field passes to me, I knew I would get a chance to expose Silenas in the game. The first half was terrible and I was really poor. I missed a good chance and I was sloppy in possession. Silenas had the upper hand. We were 1-0 down at half-time. The second half was much better and the moment finally arrived to make my mark. As the ball went across Bolger’s body, I instinctively knew his next pass. I sprinted in behind Silenas to connect to the through ball and scooped it over the goalkeeper’s head to make it 1-1.

Those goals will always mean more than the simple tap-ins. They are the bread and butter. It is when you see an obvious flaw in your opponent, you expose it and use it to your advantage that makes those goals all the more sweeter.

Over the course of my career to date, I have played in Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, Luxembourg and spent a week in Madeira in preparation for a match against Maritimo (that trip deserves a column all on its own). Those experiences will live long in my memory, even though each carries its own hard-luck story.

Now as the current League representatives prepare for their European challenges, I wish them all the very best. I’m sure that they will be tested and learn something new about themselves. But it’s about learning all about the opposition will ultimately help them in that push to advance further.

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