Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Focus on brighter future for Irish League football is worthy idea

Solitude was full to see Cliftonville take on Crusaders in the League Cup final
Solitude was full to see Cliftonville take on Crusaders in the League Cup final

I attended a focus group earlier this week. When people hear the words focus group they tend to immediately switch off, unless that said focus group is talking about them, but bear with me on this one.

This focus group related to the future of the Irish League football and how to improve the local game for all concerned.

Other members of the media were also there. Previously, sessions had been held for Irish League managers, chairmen and fans.

We've been down this road before of course with the Northern Ireland Football Task Force, led by Northern Ireland World Cup hero Billy Hamilton.

Can you believe that Task Force first met in 2001?

Thirteen years on many of the same issues were being discussed on Monday in Belfast... falling attendances, facilities, playing summer football, number of teams in the top divisions and so on and so on.

There will be some of you who have no interest in Irish League football, but there are plenty of others who do – like the thousands who packed into Solitude on Saturday for the League Cup final between Cliftonville and Crusaders – and for them this exercise by the Northern Ireland Football League is extremely worthwhile.

Unfortunately, full Irish League grounds are the exception rather than the rule.

In case you aren't aware, the Irish League is now run by an organisation called the Northern Ireland Football League, who have taken over from the Irish FA.

Many supporters seem happy with this feeling that the IFA never truly cared about Irish League football and teams ranging from Linfield to Larne, Ballinamallard to Brantwood and Glentoran to Glebe Rangers.

I wouldn't say the IFA didn't care. A more accurate statement might be that they cared about other things a little more like the international team for instance.

The Northern Ireland Football League, or NIFL for short, have to care. This is their baby and they need it to grow, hence their slogan "Creating our Football Future Together".

At the focus group Tom Gorrisen, a Uefa advisory manager, gave a presentation about the local game and then invited debate with broadcasters and football writers about how we could take football here forward... or at the very least halt the decline in interest.

The journalists offered passionate arguments about what could be done. Officials from the NIFL, including Managing Director Andrew Johnston, listened intently and answered questions when they were posed.

I'm sure at the other focus groups organised for managers, chairmen and fans the desire to come up with suggestions was just the same.

Sponsors and external advertising agencies offering commercial viewpoints have also been involved and an online survey, independently administered by Millward Brown, is now open to all with the results and recommendations to be revealed in May.

The website address for that survey is: http://www.nifootballleague.com/danske-bank-premiership/news/item/survey-creating-our-football-future-together

Give it a whirl if you have five minutes. And good luck to the NIFL. They do not have an easy task on their hands securing a bright future for Irish League football, but no-one can say they aren't trying to do something about it.

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