Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Losing top stars is bad news for Irish League

Kevin Braniff has left Portadown and will head to Australia this week

When the dust settles on the 2013-2014 Irish League season what stories will linger in our memories?

The outstanding winner has to be 'Callachergate' – the story that just kept on giving.

The moment Linfield boss David Jeffrey grabbed that microphone at a 'private' supporters' function the world changed forever!

Then there is the County Antrim Shield final debacle – with the game finally getting the green light for the Ballymena Showgrounds early next month.

But there will also be a sad footnote to the season because we have waved farewell to two Irish League greats.

Coleraine legend Stephen Carson is off to America to hone his coaching skills and he leaves behind cherished memories of an Irish Cup win with Glentoran and outstanding service in the blue and white stripes of Coleraine.

His departure is a teary eyed one, but the other big name exit should be a huge frustration to everyone who cares about the Irish League.

There is no question we have lost a diamond as former Portadown skipper Kevin Braniff heads towards Melbourne.

Braniff's exit is particularly depressing as the 30-year-old – like Carson – has been one of the best Irish League players of the last 10 years and our game needs these rare talents to bring fans through the turnstiles.

Both men have plenty in common.

Their performances in the Irish League even saw them clamber onto the international stage.

In fact, former Millwall frontman Braniff was on fire at the start of the season – so hot in fact that I suggested in an earlier column he should be considered for an international recall.

Talk about putting the kiss of death on a player!

But we are all left shocked by the row Braniff had with his boss Ronnie McFall which has led to him heading Down Under.

Just like Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane, if both men brought out books they would have contrasting versions of the story to tell.

As far as the Ports were concerned, there was to be no reconciliation and despite intense interest from Linfield, Braniff's Irish League career is over – at least for now.

He was a player who was worth the entrance money. Fans want to see matchwinners and he was just that.

And his fall-out with McFall happened when the player still had two and a half years left of his contract to run!

The Irish League is a much better product than the cynics claim but when players like Braniff jump ship you do see the iceberg a little more clearly.

How many players are there that are genuinely class acts? There are plenty of talented players but only a handful of star performers and Braniff was one of them.

Cliftonville have two in Joe Gormley and Liam Boyce, but in terms of individual skill, Boyce and Braniff were on another level.

Braniff and Carson are embarking on a foreign adventure already travelled by Daryl Fordyce and Albert Watson who informed Linfield a year ago that they were emigrating to Canada.

Both men joined FC Edmonton and are loving the experience. Robert Garrett joined them last April, but has since returned to the Irish League from the North American Soccer League.

Former Larne, Ballymena United and Portadown player Orman Okunaiya has travelled east and is now playing professionally for Ceres FC in the Philippines.

Football is a global game and there are many exciting opportunities open to players, but the Irish League can't afford to wave farewell to too many of its main attractions.

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