Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Irish league critics won't go away but our game has beaten them all

You beauty: Gary Hamilton celebrates Glenavon’s fairytale Irish Cup win
You beauty: Gary Hamilton celebrates Glenavon’s fairytale Irish Cup win

This week I'm taking aim at the Irish League's snipers. I know it's hard to comprehend but there are some people on this planet who have no interest in football.

I guess that places them beyond the reach of the Irish League.

Despite what some cynics believe, domestic football still captures the imagination of a huge number of people in Northern Ireland.

Two World Wars and a bitter sectarian conflict failed to destroy it. The Oval may have been reduced to rubble by German bombers in World War Two but the Irish League spirit was never broken.

The game doesn't pretend to be anything other than a largely amateur, part-time structure.

But there seems to be neverending attacks on it by people whose opinions are based on ignorance.

Perhaps some of them wouldn't know a rugby ball from a football.

Already this season we have witnessed some thrilling entertainment.

The Big Two battle at the Oval was a classic. As I watched the action unfold I was getting flashbacks to some of the amazing matches I have witnessed over the years. Stunning fightbacks, major shocks and moments that are etched in the mind forever.

As a working journalist there's an emotional detachment from the action but we can still appreciate the drama, tension and passion.

However, the supporters live and breathe it. They are swept up in a wave of emotion, not knowing where it will take them.

Anyone who chooses to follow football from their armchair is missing out on this experience.

There is no substitute for live sport and the thrill it generates.

You can choose to watch overpaid, pampered professionals on your television sets – if you can't afford the extortionate ticket prices – but what connection are you going to have with these 'global icons'? It could even be argued that the standard of our local game has never been higher.

The Irish League has always had characters but a new approach to fitness and mental preparation has made the product even more appealing.

And if there was no Irish League we would never discover the heroic qualities of men like Jimmy Jones and Walter McFarland.

There is always a fairytale story unfolding too. Want one from last season? How about Gary Hamilton's Glenavon winning the Irish Cup for the first time since 1997?

But we could all still do better, from the media to the Irish FA, clubs and supporters.

I'll never forget the moment when Howard Wells was unveiled as the Irish FA's new chief-executive and he was asked how the association would develop its relationship with the media.

Howard commented on the common sense approach of having press boxes on the half-way line only for the late, great Malcolm Brodie to reply: "Well you obviously haven't been to all our grounds in the Irish League!"

There seems to be a general consensus that the game could be marketed better.

The Northern Ireland Football League, through its restructure proposals, have sought to breathe fresh life into the product.

Hopefully, further investment will flow into the game and facilities will continue to be transformed. But the easiest thing in the world is to fire cheap shots and criticise.

Our sides, despite little preparation time, no summer football and being up against full-time teams, impressed on the European stage this summer.

One is tempted to say 'stick that in your pipe and smoke it'.

And another Irish League season has started with a bang.

It will keep taking the knocks and carry on.

True legends like Walter leave us with special memories

Whenever we think of Walter McFarland the word 'pride' springs to mind.

Walter was proud to wear the Crusaders jersey, proud to captain the club and proud of everything he achieved in the game.

But his passion for the club didn't dwindle at the end of a glittering career which featured two memorable Irish League titles (1973 and 1976) and two Irish Cup triumphs (1967 and 1968). Walter, who sadly passed away last week, could be found at several awards functions beaming with pride as he watched modern day heroes follow in his footsteps.

Inducted into the Crusaders Hall of Fame in 2007, he was a brave leader of men, hugely respected by team-mates and opponents. There were famous European tangles with Liverpool and Valencia as well as domestic success in the County Antrim Shield, Ulster Cup and Carlsberg Cup.

Away from the game he won several judo titles and became World Masters Champion in 2001. Here was one man you wouldn't want to wrestle with in the penalty area. Walter was proud to be part of the wider Irish League family and many, including his former team-mates and buddies Jackie Fullerton and Liam Beckett, have paid emotional tributes.

While we send our sincere condolences to the family and many friends of Walter we recognise that true legends never die – they live on in our hearts and memories.

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