Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Clubs face ruin if they refuse to work as one

The Shield final between Linfield and Crusaders was postponed last month

I've been clocking up the air miles recently so you'll have to tell me if I've missed anything. Did you enjoy the County Antrim Shield Final?

I searched high and low for a ticket but it was easier getting one for a free Van Morrison gig at the Waterfront Hall!

How naive I was to leave Northern Ireland and hope there would be no controversy blighting our domestic game.

We can debate all day and night about whether Linfield were right to refuse not to sell tickets for the final against Crusaders, but the damage has been done.

Own goal scored and of course who always suffers? – the game and it's supporters.

If the final goes ahead in January, it's likely to be at the Ballymena Showgrounds in front of a smaller crowd than The Oval could have catered for.

The competition, which generates less affection among fans than the League Cup or Irish Cup, is now exposed to more ridicule.

It's a depressing episode – some would say scandalous – and it hardly encourages sponsors to join this party.

It was impossible to escape the irony that on the night the final should have been staged – last Wednesday – the Northern Ireland Football League launched its consultation process at Newforge.

All 42 member clubs, other key stakeholders and you, the supporters, can now shape the future of our game.

Over the next few months we are going to do what we do best – talking.

We like to talk in this country. When we aren't talking we have 'talks about talks'.

Whether it's parades, flags, the past or the state of our football family, we aren't shy of expressing our opinion.

I can picture US diplomat Richard Haass and his colleague Harvard professor Meghan O'Sullivan sitting at Heathrow Airport looking agitated, the sweat glistening on their foreheads.

Mr Haass could be heard saying: "I'm on the first plane out to America. I can deal with the Troubles legacy and flags but now they've put the County Antrim Shield and domestic football on the table. I'm not a miracle worker."

Who else is talking? – the Irish FA who have just announced their Strategic Plan for 2013/2018.

It's been a long 130 years but the association has now decided to do all it can to raise standards at international, domestic and grassroots level.

They now hope to 'foster a balanced, flourishing senior domestic game'.

Better late than never, eh?

As Elvis Presley would say, it's time for a little less conversation and a little more action.

It's those assigned with the task of stopping the decline of our game who must have the courage of their convictions.

Finding a consensus on the way forward will not be easy – it's impossible to please everyone – but change is imperative.

Yes, the game needs funding and new stadiums need to be built but the Shield Final debacle highlights how relations between the senior clubs must improve too.

As I stated in an earlier column, if clubs are divided they will fall together.

To all the Irish league fans out there, this is your time.

This is your opportunity to revive the game you love.

Don't waste this opportunity as you cannot be guaranteed another chance.

Uefa expertise has been sought but just as Mr Haass knows, we hold our fate in our hands.

The NI Football League's Vision is called 'Creating Our Football Future Together'.

The key word here is 'together'.

It's time to look beyond selfish interests, end the petty squabbles and see the bigger picture.

Maybe one day I'll return from a holiday safe in the knowledge that our football family will still be a happy, healthy lot.

Let's make sure there are still football matches to buy tickets for.

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