Belfast Telegraph

Irish FA propose 'tweak' to Irish League season in new five year strategy

By Gareth Hanna

The Irish FA's new five-year plan proposes a 'tweak' to the Irish League season and a reform of intermediate football, as well as a goal to see Northern Ireland qualify for 'every other' major tournament.

The association today unveiled it's five year strategy from 2017-2022, Promoting, Fostering and Developing Football for All, which has set in place six new long-term objectives.

The first of those demands that the national teams challenge for qualification to every tournament and succeeds in that bid 'every other time'. There is also a goal for the Northern Irish Football League to break into the top 40 European leagues, partly by 'tweaking' the structure of the domestic season.

Break into the top 40 in European Leagues

NIFL's current European co-efficient ranks them 47th out of 54 leagues, based on performance in UEFA competitions. The IFA are pledging to support the clubs to achieve more in Europe. In order to do that, the Association will work with NIFL to 'tweak' the season "so that clubs are playing in May and June. This will mean that clubs are in peak form and fitness ahead of their competitive matches."

The IFA will also help clubs' preparations for European ties by looking to release players into full-time training with international managers and staff. There is also a proposal to set up a performance academy for 16-23 year-old Irish League players, who would be trained and educated 'in an elite environment' while staying with their clubs.

READ MORE: Crusaders boss would accept Irish League season tweak 'in theory' 

The Association will also look to help clubs educate players on lifestyle and nutritional values and will provide a pot of funding to help clubs pay for administration staff.

There are further implications for domestic football under the Build a thriving stadium business objective, which says: "The Irish FA believes that all club finals should be played at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. To offset costs, the association will set aside a fund to help pay for stewarding and other related costs that currently make playing finals at the ground prohibitive."

And clubs can also look forward to "significant, high profile redevelopments of NIFL Premiership grounds" under the Rebuild the football estate goal, which also plans "up to 20 other smaller projects with clubs outside the NIFL Premiership".

Reinvigorate the everyday game

While the Irish FA say that participation has increased to  58,000 young people between the ages of four and 24, they also announce a proposal to reform intermediate football by the 2019/20 season so that there are a maximum of 88 senior and intermediate clubs across NI. Under the top three tiers of NIFL football, the IFA will look to create two 'regional' intermediate sections, the geography of which is not yet defined.

Those two sections will include a maximum of 52 teams to add to the 36 NIFL clubs.  They will be run by the association on a paid contract basis. Interested parties will bid to run each section. Currently 116 clubs have Intermediate status across Northern Ireland - 104 outside NIFL's Premier Intermediate division. The strategy reiterates this is only a proposal and passes consultation to an intermediate football working group.

Challenge every time, qualify every other time

The goal for the national teams includes both the men's and women's teams as well as underage sides. And in order to help them along the way, the Irish FA pledge to build a new national training centre, including up to six outdoor pitches, medical facilities, a physiotherapy clinic and a gym. Added to that, the IFA will look to work with universities to create Performance Academies and "build a football programme alongside an education pathway". Along those lines, six performance schools will also be established across Northern Ireland, becoming hubs for post-primary players.

A Talent ID Manager will also be appointed to identify male and female players across England and Scotland who are eligible to represent Northern Ireland and identify the best talent in the Irish League. Work will be done to improve coaching, underage NI teams, relationships with clubs and to host more UEFA tournaments in Northern Ireland.

Build a thriving stadium business

This goal announces plans to make hosting local cup finals at the National Stadium more affordable. Neither the County Antrim Shield nor League Cup finals were hosted at Windsor Park last season. The strategy says: "The Irish FA believes that all club finals should be played at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. To offset costs, the association will set aside a fund to help pay for stewarding and other related costs that currently make playing finals at the ground prohibitive."

The IFA will also "actively seek" a naming rights partner for the stadium, look to attract concerts and non-football events and also plan to open a fan zone and NI shop at the stadium.

Rebuild the football estate

As the Department for Communities is set to deliver over £30 million of capital investment into the game, the IFA want to maximise the benefit for "all of football in Northern Ireland" and outline plans for the National Training Centre, stadium improvements, futsal and a pitch strategy. "We look forward to the long-promised £32.6 million of sub-regional funding being released by the Stormont Executive and will work to ensure that this capital investment has a transformative effect on football at all levels," said Irish FA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson.

Serve the community better

The IFA commit to "deliver positive change in Northern Ireland through the power of football" by establishing an Irish FA Foundation as legacy of Euro 2016 and with a goal to increase participation. The Association will also employ a full-time Public Affairs Officer.

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