Belfast Telegraph

Irish League chief says local game is on the up

By Stuart McKinley

Those responsible for running the domestic game here are determined that the old adage of what goes up must come down won't come true for the Northern Ireland Football League.

So far the 2014-2015 season has pretty much had it all.

Such is the level that the matches are hard to call, it's only in the last few weeks that the title race has been whittled down to two or three teams and the average goal count is greater than in any of the top 10 leagues across Europe.

There are also more people coming through the turnstiles, which means more money coming into clubs and the knock-on effect should be that, steadily at least, the product continues to improve.

NI Football League managing director Andrew Johnston led a season-long consultation process, involving all stakeholders, which finished last summer and he is putting the success down to giving fans what they want.

"We will be looking at the attendance figures again when the split comes at the end of this month, but to have an increase of 12.9 per cent at the half way stage was fantastic," said Johnston.

"There are a few factors that have led to the increase. I believe the competitiveness of the season and the fact that six teams have led the league has a lot to do with the crowd numbers and the feelgood factor that has come from that has brought people through the turnstiles.

"The Friday night experiment has been positive as well. It is still ongoing, but the six games that we trialled before Christmas brought about an increase of 11.1 per cent in attendances.

"The Boxing Day attendance figures were up 18.1 per cent on the year before as well.

"The interest is there and the league is entertaining. In the last couple of months I myself have watched Portadown and Ballymena United draw 5-5 and I was also at Mourneview Park when Crusaders beat Glenavon 7-3.

"Those were incredible games of football and they are the type that capture the public's imagination."

Friday nights haven't been alright with everyone. Linfield made it clear that they weren't happy when their match against Portadown was moved a fortnight ago - and while they were a bit quieter about it, it is understood that the Ports weren't too keen either.

As it turned out, while the crowd was down by just a handful of supporters compared to when the teams met in December, there were more Linfield fans in attendance than at the previous game.

The positive news for the fans who have enjoyed a thrilling season so far - with more to come in the next couple of months - is that those at NIFL aren't going to sit back with their arms folded and enjoy the good times.

Johnston and his staff, as well as the Premiership board, are already taking steps to move forward, with a new Club Development Manager employed to improve things even further.

"We know that this could well be an exceptional season and next season could be very different, but we are prepared for that," said Johnston.

"Next season is the 125th anniversary of league football in Northern Ireland and as well as wanting to celebrate the successes and the great players of the past, we see it as an opportunity to take things on again in terms of our marketing.

"The clubs have worked very hard to improve things and they are extending their social media reach all the time, which is having an impact.

"Over the last few years clubs have also taken a more professional approach to growing their youth teams and when I go to games I see lots of kids in their club tracksuits who now feel part of the club.

"The clubs are also getting into their communities as well, which is vitally important. Just this week a new member of staff has started in a club development role.

"During our consultation process the clubs said that this was something that they wanted to do, so Stephen Mills has joined us and we see his role as very important. The clubs need help and assistance and we are doing all we can for them."

With little or no interest in playing senior football on Sundays - or any other level for that matter - it seems that for the foreseeable future domestic football in Nothern Ireland will be played on Saturday afternoons and Friday evenings.

Although given the new Premier League TV deal, that could change.

"We know that around the corner English Premier League matches are going to be on TV on Friday nights and that is something we will have to look at," he said.

"Ards played a couple of matches last season on Saturday evenings and if clubs feel there is a kick-off time that works for them then it's only right that we support anyone who wants to be flexible.

"Our League Cup final was a Saturday evening and it was a success, so it's up to clubs to see what works for them."

With no prospect of a TV deal for the NIFL Premiership, fans will have to settle for the new online streams which have been popular this season. More popular than you might think as well, which gives hard evidence of the interest that is there.

"The live streaming has been a real positive for us," said Johnston.

"It has also given us a measure of the wider interest in our league.

"One match that stands out is the Cliftonville v Crusaders north Belfast derby on Boxing Day, which was watched on the online stream by 35,000 people.

"It had a global audience too, going as wide as the Far East and Russia."

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