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Irish League clubs interested in Scottish Challenge Cup invite

By Graham Luney

Published 21/01/2016

In favour: Rangers boss Mark Warburton welcomed the idea of having a tournament for Irish League, Scottish and Welsh sides
In favour: Rangers boss Mark Warburton welcomed the idea of having a tournament for Irish League, Scottish and Welsh sides

Irish League clubs have given a guarded welcome to the prospect of competing in a revamped Scottish Challenge Cup tournament.

Scottish Professional Football League officials want at least two Irish League sides, and two from Wales, to participate in a new look competition as early as next summer.

Northern Ireland Football League managing director Andrew Johnston (right) will attend a meeting in Glasgow tomorrow to learn more about the ambitious plans. Uefa are being briefed about the proposals today which incorporate an expanded competition featuring Irish League and Welsh teams along with clubs from the Scottish Championship, Scottish League One and Scottish League Two as well as Under-20 sides from the Scottish Premier League.

The SPFL had hoped English Premier League clubs would allow their youth sides to participate but they are likely to enter the Johnstone's Paint Trophy in England.

Petrofac Training's sponsorship of the knockout competition ends after this year's final between Rangers and Peterhead at Hampden on April 10.

If the proposals are financially feasible, Danske Bank Premiership sides would respond positively and Johnston said: "It's something in which we are taking a keen interest."

Certainly, if an attractive sponsorship package and television coverage can be secured, Irish League sides would come on board.

Uefa have allowed international club competitions to proceed before such as the Baltic Cup featuring clubs from Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Lithuania.

At the moment, BBC Alba pay around £100,000 a year to televise the Challenge Cup tournament but SPFL chiefs hope to raise similar sums from Welsh broadcasters and BBC Northern Ireland.

Dwindling prize money and problems over fixture scheduling contributed to the Setanta Cup's downfall and clubs will be wary of similar issues threatening to derail this proposal but for now they are giving the initiative serious consideration.

Glentoran chairman Stephen Henderson said: "It's an idea that has been raised at Northern Ireland Football League management committee meetings and the advantage of this proposal over the Setanta Cup is that our seasons are synchronised and it's not like teams are travelling long distances out of season.

"I think if there is a realistic chance of our Irish League clubs facing different opposition of a good standard we should give it consideration. There are logistical issues which need to be resolved but we were very much supporters of the all-Ireland Setanta Cup and as long as this proposal is financially feasible we will embrace it.

"It would be remiss of our club not to welcome participation in a tournament against a high standard of opposition and one which would excite our supporters."

Glenavon and NIFL chairman Adrian Teer said: "We're excited at the prospect of joining up in a new competition. It's a concept that is very interesting to us."

Linfield chairman Jim Kerr questioned whether Danske Bank Premiership clubs who secure European qualification would be able to feature in the revamped tournament.

"It's a particularly good idea as it widens the opportunity for clubs in Northern Ireland but from my understanding, the clubs from the Irish League who qualify for Europe will not be eligible to take part," suggested Kerr.

"The other clubs will then vie to take part perhaps with a preference given to our League Cup winners if they haven't already qualified for Uefa competition.

"It's an opportunity for our clubs to explore new horizons."

Hamilton and Northern Ireland stopper Michael McGovern said: "I think we've always got to explore different ideas and this type of tournament would excite fans and players as long as it is feasible and given the go ahead by Uefa. I think there's always a few problems and doubts about an initiative like this but it is worth exploring."

Rangers manager Mark Warburton also welcomed the plans.

He said: "You are always looking to provide a quality of challenge. If any new measures and innovative ideas bring about an increase in the quality of challenge then I'll always support it.

"I'm sure there are a lot of hurdles to overcome and different permissions to be granted but anything that raises the quality of competition, I'll always be supportive of."

Former Linfield captain Michael Gault has agreed a pre-contract with Crusaders.

The 32-year-old will move this summer when his contract at Shamrock Park expires, and pen a two-year deal at Seaview.

Gault's versatility is a major asset as he can perform at centre-back or in midfield.

"There were four or five clubs interested in Michael, so we are delighted to get him," said Crues boss Stephen Baxter. "He is a vastly experienced player."

Belfast Telegraph

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