Belfast Telegraph

Fair shares, please Minister

By Graham Luney

A phrase you often hear around the local game is the Irish League family.

Like any family, they can achieve a lot more happiness going forward when they are united, not divided.

The Irish League needs fresh ideas. It needs to embrace change or run the risk of suffering a slow demise.

One of it's biggest headaches – and boy has this headache lasted a long time – is poor facilities. The domestic game has suffered from a serious lack of investment.

Cash is badly needed to transform grounds into more family friendly environments.

In the case of some clubs, they need completely new arenas.

Glentoran have been exploring the possibility of moving to a new stadium while Crusaders and Coleraine would love to do the same.

Solitude has undergone impressive refurbishment but more progress can be achieved.

Ards are still without a ground they call home while Warrenpoint Town have been on the road while their home venue is developed.

The Danske Bank Premiership clubs may be rivals on the pitch but they share a common goal off it – money is badly needed to keep this sport thriving.

The BBC reported last week that Glentoran chairman Terence Brannigan was sent a letter in 2011 by Nelson McCausland outlining reassurances of a £10m grant.

Then Sports Minister McCausland wrote the letter, apparently at the request of First Minister Peter Robinson, who facilitated the financial rescue of the club by acting as intermediary with a mystery benefactor.

Senior civil servants disputed that the government money had been rubber stamped and no funds have been released.

Mr McCausland's successor as Sports Minister, Carál Ní Chuilín, is now working with the Irish FA to decide the best way of allocating funding to clubs but even the £25m earmarked for the Windsor Park redevelopment has been placed in doubt following the controversial appointment of David Martin as vice president at the IFA.

Meanwhile, Crusaders were right to withdraw their judicial review into the redevelopment plans at Windsor in the wider interests of the game but they now say their actions have been vindicated by confirmation of McCausland's letter to Glentoran.

Glentoran's rivals have been suspicious of secret deals being done and the bottom line here is there must be a fair distribution of funding to clubs.

The Glens know all about the importance of keeping the Irish League family together. That family united to positive effect when the Oval was razed to the ground during the Second World War. Fans came together and helped the east Belfast club rise again.

Clubs are battling to stay afloat but they need to work together, not against one another.

The perilous financial state of several Irish League clubs has lead to the Irish FA offering loans to those clubs to keep them functioning effectively.

The game cannot prosper without grant aid and I hope clubs will be handed vital funds but there should never be special treatment afforded to anyone.

The system of awarding money to senior clubs must be honest, fair and take account of the need for improved facilities throughout the league.

I hope Glentoran get the money they need to build a new stadium in east Belfast but I also hope that equal value, importance and credibility is attached to other proposals and business cases.

There is already jealousy in the local game over Linfield's financial agreement with the Irish FA regarding Windsor Park.

But now there seems to be more suspicion, resentment, anger and cynicism around the local game regarding these issues of stadium redevelopment.

Linfield said it couldn't guarantee the safety of Crusaders officials at Windsor Park during the judicial review row and many Blues fans boycotted the Seaview fixture.

Now, fans of rivals clubs fear Glentoran will be rewarded handsomely when funding announcements are made.

The Irish League needs to go forward united. If divisions continue, it will stumble from one disaster to the next.

Belfast Telegraph

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