Irish League has its critics, but they don't even attend games: MulgrewLinfield ace Jamie hits back at doom merchants
Linfield captain Jamie Mulgrew says the Irish League's critics have never been more wrong.
The domestic game has been the victim of cheap shots for many years, but with Sky TV covering live matches again, Danske Bank renewing its sponsorship deal with the Northern Ireland Football League and attendances on the rise, the game is on the up.
Danske Bank has extended its partnership with NIFL for a further three years, continuing as title sponsor of the Premiership and the Women's Premiership.
Sky Sports agreed to broadcast five Premiership fixtures and the NI Football League Cup Final live this season and in each of the next five campaigns.
And NIFL chiefs revealed that for the first half of the 2016-2017 campaign an additional 12,000 fans attended games - 116,548 supporters went through the turnstiles in the opening 19 rounds of Premiership action, a 12% increase on 12 months earlier.
Former Glentoran starlet Mulgrew, who made his Linfield debut in August 2005, is a proud warrior for the Blues, but he's also a passionate fan of Irish League football and he's got no time for negative attitudes.
There have always been talented players in the top flight, but the 30-year-old, who has made 466 appearances for Linfield, feels the game has reaped the benefits of a greater professional mindset.
"With Sky TV back on board, it means more young players like our own Paul Smyth will be put in the shop window and our league will receive greater recognition," said Mulgrew.
"More supporters will see what a great product we have and that's important because I often feel that people express an opinion about the game without even watching it.
"I think it is easy to criticise but there is also ignorance because they don't watch the game or give it a chance. People don't go to games yet they have an opinion. There are many great players and teams in the league, including young players who are capable of competing at a higher level.
"I think the training methods have improved but a lot of that is moving with the times and a greater understanding of players needing to look after themselves and be prepared for the challenges.
"If players want to prolong their careers they need to take a serious approach to their physical well -being.
"The standard of the game is very high and attendances have risen which tells you people like what they see.
"How many times have we watched English football on the television and you have come away thinking 'well that was crap'? The excitement just isn't there a lot of the time.
"I'm not saying every Irish League game is thrilling entertainment but you get honest commitment and passion from the players who have adopted a more professional mindset.
"You still hear negative comments about the Irish League and it's hearsay rather than criticism from pundits.
"When I was a young player breaking through there were many great players around, Irish League legends, you could rhyme them off and I was left wondering why these guys didn't go on to play at a higher level.
"There have always been good players but there's a great professional mindset around the league and we are seeing a better product, now thankfully played in front of a wider audience."
Linfield's title hopes haven't been extinguished yet and they embark on the long trip to Ballinamallard tomorrow hoping that Coleraine can slam the brakes on Crusaders at the Showgrounds.
With the Crues seven points in front with only six games remaining, the Blues - who face the champions immediately after the league split - remain focused on winning all their remaining Premiership battles and also progressing to the Tennent's Irish Cup final.
"What is important is that we finish the season strongly and we have started to hit good form," added Mulgrew.
"Beating teams at the top of the table is one challenge, but you've also got to get the better of sides in the bottom half of the table and in the past we have struggled to be consistent.
"With regard to the title race it is important to fight on because there is always the chance that the door could open a bit further for us.
"If Crusaders drop points and so do we, we will be there standing with egg on our faces.
"I fully expect Crusaders to finish the season strongly as well, I don't think many people are expecting them to slip-up.
"But overall I feel we have improved this season and the results against Crusaders, including the strong performance in the final of the County Antrim Shield showed that.
"We have made big strides in the right direction and we need to continue to do that. We set high standards at Linfield and those will never drop."