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Northern Ireland boss O'Neill to give Irish League sides a Euro boost

 

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill is ready to offer his coaching expertise to help Irish League teams succeed in Europe.

It is understood that the Irish Football Association are putting plans in place for the future to assist local clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with Linfield, Crusaders, Coleraine and Ballymena United set to be the first to benefit next season.

And O'Neill is at the heart of it.

He has been involved with IFA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson and other big hitters at the Association in formulating a new strategy to move football forward in Northern Ireland, with one of the key aims designed to improve the fortunes of Irish League sides in Europe.

Over the years the governing body has been accused by Irish League clubs and fans of not doing enough to help their teams in European competition. A bone of contention has long been a lack of financial aid to prepare against full-time opposition.

The IFA won't be handing over any money this time either, but are willing to provide resources at their disposal and none come bigger than the history making O'Neill.

The idea is that O'Neill, and other experienced IFA coaches, will take coaching clinics for local sides in Europe, if those clubs are agreeable to the suggestion.

Given O’Neill’s stunning success in guiding Shamrock Rovers into the group stages of the Europa League in 2011 — the first time an Irish side achieved such a feat — and leading his country to the knockout stages of the Euro 2016 finals, it is unthinkable that sides here would reject such an innovative proposal.

O’Neill, who started his playing career at Coleraine and was an influential figure for Glentoran in his latter days, is keen for Irish League sides to do better on the European stage as he believes increased playing time at that level can develop younger players and in turn potentially see more move across the water and eventually make it into the full international side.

Next season Linfield, as Irish League title winners, will represent Northern Ireland in the Champions League as David Healy manages in Europe for the first time while Danske Bank Premiership runners-up Crusaders plus Coleraine and Ballymena United will compete in the Europa League.

In a joint move by the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) and Dafabet Welsh Premier League, friendlies have been arranged for Linfield, Coleraine and Ballymena against Welsh opposition on June 17.

The Blues will travel to Bala Town with Ballymena taking on Connah’s Quay and the Bannsiders meeting Bangor City in a bid to deliver meaningful preparation matches ahead of entering European competition.

The Welsh FA, which runs the Welsh Premier League, provide financial assistance to their teams in Europe to the tune of £5,000.

The feeling at the IFA is that a coaching session with O’Neill and other IFA coaches for Irish League players would be worth much more than handing over a nominal fee, even if clubs request one.

The IFA would also argue that NIFL runs the Irish League and the Association provides a lump sum to NIFL every year to use as they see fit.

The riches that Irish League sides gain from qualifying for Europe are staggering in comparison to what they used to be.

For instance Linfield, whose first round games in the Champions League are scheduled for June 27/28 and July 4/5, are guaranteed €480,000 even if they are knocked out at the first stage while Ballymena United’s Europa League Play-off victory over Glenavon last week landed them a whopping £200,000.

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