Belfast Telegraph

Friday night's not alright for Irish League football

By Graham Luney

Fancy some Friday night fever? That's not a request to dust down those flares for the Groovy Train night at Belfast's MClub.

I'm more a DJ Hardwell man myself. Why stand around in freezing temperatures waiting for a taxi to take you home when a city ambulance will swiftly provide that service.

But is Friday night fever a case of kill or cure for the Irish League patient? The Oval provided the theatre as Glentoran met Linfield, 'live' on Sky Sports last Friday evening.

The game wasn't a classic, but it was still the Big Two and there's always an edge to Glentoran-Linfield matches, especially this one as David Jeffrey's final foray onto 'enemy' territory as Blues boss.

The fans did their best to create an atmosphere, but couldn't lift the earnest scufflers on the pitch beyond a 1-0 Matthew Tipton penalty win for Linfield.

So on the evidence from our supposed biggest showpiece, the prognosis must be proceed with intensive care down the Friday night route.

I know the Irish League fixture list is like the Arsenal defence at Anfield – all over the place! Matches are being switched as often as Manchester United's starting 11.

If it's not frozen pitches wiping out our matches, it's waterlogged surfaces. The result? Fixture chaos and congestion, less recovery time for part-time players between matches, more injuries and inevitably a lower standard of football.

The irony amid all this hardy annual talk of summer football is that if there are any more postponements we will be extending the season into June anyway! Whatever next... Northern Ireland playing on a Sunday?

Now that Michael O'Neill's men are set to go to work at Windsor Park on a Sunday next year, will more Irish League clubs follow their example?

I'm not convinced there's a huge appetite among fans for Sunday football, but it's another option clubs have if they want to ease fixture congestion. Ards have experimented with a Saturday evening kick-off, but that's a non-runner in my view. Players and supporters would prefer to spend quality time with their friends and family.

As for Friday night entertainment, it works for Ulster Rugby and the Belfast Giants so why not Irish League fans?

I'm not convinced by this option either. In some circumstances it could work but how many of us – fans and players – are willing to travel long distances after work?

When Linfield faced Ards on a Friday, the crowd was down on the Blues' Saturday average.

The traditional 3pm Saturday slot remains my number one choice, but the harsh reality is that too many people are playing football that day. Perhaps if all youth and amateur league matches had a morning kick-off time, attendances for the 3pm Premiership games might grow?

What we currently have is a far from ideal scenario as clubs play catch-up and with Setanta Sports Cup ties and Irish Cup replays now upon us, the season becomes more congested.

Then we have to adapt to that crazy Uefa directive that our clubs cannot play on Champions League nights – nonsense!

Linfield and Cliftonville saw this crash coming when they opted out of the all-Ireland competition before, in an ironic twist of fate, they both tumbled out of the Irish Cup.

Meanwhile, I've no doubt some fans would like to see the County Antrim Shield booted into touch. There's no magic bullet, but clubs must keep engaging with supporters and be willing to experiment. Without the fans, clubs have no future so give them what they want, when they want it.

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