Irish League should do more to help transform Northern Ireland's fortunes, says Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill does not want to annoy anyone or be disrespectful to the level of football in which, as a teenager, he started making waves as a gifted Coleraine player, but he does feel the Irish League could help the national team more.
In a thought-provoking assessment, the Northern Ireland manager says clubs here should endeavour to make the Irish League more of a 'development league'.
It's unlikely such a suggestion will go down well at the likes of Linfield, Glentoran, Cliftonville, Crusaders, Portadown and the rest who exist to try and win trophies.
But O'Neill wants everyone in local football to see the bigger picture for the good of Northern Ireland.
And he adds, with common sense reasoning, that summer football is the way to go for the Irish League, which in turn would benefit youth team football in the country.
O'Neill says: “If you look at the Northern Ireland squad, there is probably only Gareth McAuley who has worked himself up from the Irish League to be a Premier League and international player.
“When you look at the Republic squad, they have several players who have played their way out of the League of Ireland, like Seamus Coleman, Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, James McClean and others.
“The Irish League doesn't send many players away any more. You wonder if you don't go across the water at 16 and go into the Irish League instead, is it a place where you can develop to become a professional player?
“If we're honest, statistics would suggest it is not, so that being the case, how can we address that?
“Personally, I would change the whole season because we don't have the facilities in this country that are needed to deal with winter football.
“In youth football, for example, when games are called off during the winter, come April you have kids playing three times per week.
“The other side of it is if you take the Easter holidays and summer holidays in a 16-week period, our kids are off school for 10 weeks and they aren't playing any football then with the season drawing to a close. That would be a real opportunity to get a good chance to work with them.
“You would have better pitches playing through the summer and you could hopefully develop a better and more professional environment.
“It's not something that if it didn't work you couldn't change it back, and I think everyone would agree the Irish League is not in its healthiest state.
“We need to create a league here that allows players to develop and we have to export more players to full-time football.
“I would love to see a really healthy Irish League, where clubs in England are taking our young players across. I don't mean this in a detrimental way, but the Irish League should be a good development league.
“I know everyone wants to win things and I accept that, but clubs should also be aspiring to develop players and move them on, and create that sort of environment.
“The League of Ireland has been better than us at that, and subsequently their players have developed in full-time football and gone on to be internationals.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital