Irish League football has bright future, insists Cliftonville chairman Lawlor
Cliftonville chairman Gerard Lawlor believes the future for Irish League football can be bright.
With more and more people here travelling to watch glamour games in England and Scotland, it is getting harder and harder for local clubs to attract the paying spectator.
If that trend continues, fears will grow about where the Irish League will be in 10 years.
Lawlor has high hopes, though he insists leadership must come from the IFA.
He says: “I think if people at the top have the best interests of football here at heart, the Irish League has a great future. Irish League is what real football is about, there is great passion in the local game and there is a local team for everyone.
“Also I think people underestimate the standard. Irish League players don’t get the credit they deserve. The product we have here is a good one. Werder Bremen, a huge German club, recently signed Liam Boyce from us which shows the talent is there. The facilities are getting better and there are pricing discounts all around the Irish League. Our game has a lot going for it.”
Lawlor adds: “There is a real camaraderie within Irish League football and it is up to all of us to work together. I think clubs need to be sensible, you can’t spend what you don’t have which has brought problems in the past.”
To that end, Cliftonville are looking to their youth teams to provide the first team players of the future. A look at Eddie Patterson’s recent line-ups would suggest that plan is bearing fruit.
Speaking with real passion, Lawlor insists: “We have to invest in our youth projects. With Kyle Spiers here six years ago we started Cliftonville FDC. We now have 200 children leaving Solitude on a Saturday to represent Cliftonville from under 10s (one is his own son Gerard) to under 18 level.
“Even if just one of them makes the first team, the other 199 still have an affiliation with our club which hopefully they will carry through life. They are the future fans, volunteers and administrators. We’re building that strong base to move us forward.”
Patience, though, can be in short supply amongst supporters who always want success today, not tomorrow.
“As chairman I have found myself making decisions that would have gone against my grain five or six years ago,” says Gerard.
“Our manager Eddie Patterson comes in, for example, asking can we do this, can we do that? Deep down I want to say yes, but I know I can’t say yes because the football club is of paramount importance.
“Eddie has had a great record over the last five years. We have a great relationship, it seems like we’re husband and wife at times. We challenge each other and now and again we’ll fall out, but he’s a true Cliftonville man and like me wants what is best for the club.
“I would love to throw another £50,000 or £100,000 at the wage bill this year but what does it guarantee you? You could get a few injuries and have a bad campaign, and you could be bankrupt.
“In the past you could take calculated risks but in the current financial climate that's impossible. The one thing I say to people is do you want the club or the team, and it has to be the club.
“My wish for Cliftonville is that we be debt free and then from there we can grow and I'm sure success will follow.”