Belfast Telegraph

Standard in Irish League is awful now, says ex-Northern Ireland star Colin O'Neill

Champions Crusaders 'hard to watch'

By Steven Beacom

Former Northern Ireland star Colin O'Neill has slammed the quality of modern day Irish League football, insisting standards of play have declined alarmingly and that the product has become hard to watch.

In a hard hitting and wide ranging interview, the ex-Ards, Larne, Ballymena United and Portadown midfielder voiced particular criticism of his boyhood club and current champions Crusaders, stating they are one dimensional and adding that the only attractive team in recent years in local football has been Cliftonville's back-to-back title-winning side managed by Tommy Breslin.

O'Neill, who won three caps for Northern Ireland and became a legendary figure at Motherwell, has never been shy to air his views.

But his opinions on the current state of Irish League football will come as a surprise to many fans of the game here.

"It is sad to say it, but I believe the standard of play in the Irish League right now is not up to much," said the 52-year-old.

"I go to watch games and most of the time come away desperately disappointed with what I've just seen.

"The only Irish League side that I've watched in recent years that excited me and played what I consider to be really attractive football was the Cliftonville team that won successive league championships under Tommy Breslin.

"He was a manager who played the game the way it should be played and I was gutted when he left Cliftonville. His side got the ball down and passed it around, looked for openings and created chances, which were usually taken by Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley, who have now moved across the water.

"Apart from that Cliftonville team though, the quality in Irish League football, for me anyway, has been deteriorating for some time. I think it is awful compared to what I grew up watching and when I played.

"Crusaders are the champions of the Irish League, but I wouldn't pay to watch them.

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"That is a hard thing for me to say because I grew up supporting the Crues and was a season ticket holder.

"When I have seen them of late they play only one way - Colin Coates gets the ball and hoofs it long to Jordan Owens, who will try to win the ball in the air and then others feed off him."

When challenged on the fact that Crusaders, under manager Stephen Baxter, have won every trophy there is to win including last season's league title and have been a free scoring side in doing so, O'Neill replied: "They have been successful, but that doesn't mean they are good to watch. In my opinion they are not attractive to watch at all.

"Last season when they won the league title, they were being compared to Roy Walker's championship-winning sides from the 1990s.

"For me, they wouldn't come close. In Roy's side there were far more quality players from the brilliant Glen Dunlop to Sid Burrows. They also had Stephen Baxter himself who was a very good goalscorer. That Crusaders team was as hard as nails but they could play good football too.

"It's not just Crusaders. All around the Irish League the quality just isn't there.

"It may not be a popular opinion but I have seen and played a lot of Irish League football over the past 40 years and right now it is poor.

"You can't tell me that there are players of the quality of Jim Cleary, Billy Caskey, Stevie Cowan, Dessie Gorman or Glenn Ferguson playing in the Irish League at this moment in time. Everyone knew those guys, even people with no real interest in the Irish League.

"I find it hard to think of any player in local football now who transcends the Irish League. Some managers do, but not the players.

"How does it get better? Well, the Irish FA are getting millions for reaching Euro 2016, so I would like to think as the governing body of football they would invest in the Irish League to help improve the product."

Belfast Telegraph


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