Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Summer football should be on the cards for Irish League

By Billy Weir

The sadly no longer with us Bob Holness would have had a field day on Saturday as everywhere you looked on the local fixture list was the letter 'P'.

Of the 17 games planned for the Danske Bank Premiership, Bluefin Championship and Intermediate League, only three survived the arrival of the ice age last week and, to rub grit in the wounds, the planned midweek BetMcLean League Cup semi-finals also bit the slush.

So, in a big jump on the panicky bandwagon-type way, the question needs to be asked - is it time for summer football?

There are many pros - better weather, apart from Larne which will forever remain in the grip of the wintry spell that accounted for the mammoths, pitches with that strange green stuff on them and, please don't let Jim Allister see this, it would bring us into symmetry with football across the invisible border.

This could allow for a revamped version of the Setanta Cup - a bit like Brexit, it seemed like a good idea at the time but nobody really thought it through - and, more importantly, it would give teams who qualify for Europe a chance to prepare properly.

At the minute players dander back to European action wearing flip-flops and sombreros, wondering if their exhaustive Rosetta Stone course from which they learned cerveza and dónde está el servicio? will help them when they play in Azerbaijan.

The festive period is already hugely congested and, with more call-offs likely, the pressures on teams come the New Year will be crazy. By my reckoning, as it stands at the moment, Ballymena have seven games in 25 days in January, which is a huge ask of part-time players.

There are cons, too. Mainly the thought of milk-bottle-like legs poking out from beneath ill-fitting shorts as fans get the chance to prove that people from this part of the world have yet to evolve for global warming. One of my journalistic colleagues turned up at a match in August wearing shorts and such shock at the Ballymena Showgrounds hasn't been felt since the satanic musings of ELO were mooted.

Holidays are a real concern though. Part-time players haven't the luxury of jetting off to Dubai in November and, as has been witnessed before, some (and a manager or two) have also been absent when it comes to European duty in the summer.

There is also the gripe that clubs will miss out on the Boxing Day bonanza but, with Health and Safety the way it is becoming, the days of hundreds of sprout-filled, bad-jumpered fans lining up to get in are numbered.

A case in point was on Tuesday night when Ballymena's clash with Cliftonville came with instructions from all and sundry how to get to the ground, which gate to use and which cubicle in the toilets was best. It's getting to the stage where you may have to tunnel in and give a magic password to watch a game. Incidentally, the password in Ballymena is 'fluffy'.

Depending on what way a new summer season would fall, the Boxing Day games could be held in July when a lot of people are off and thus counter the loss of revenue fears.

My opinion is that we should give it a go. I would also argue for more night-time games and, turn Jim off again, Sunday ones too, but I'm not here to open a can of wriggling things.

There's no fun to be had watching football on a swamp of a pitch or sitting freezing your sprouts off in the stand and traipsing home soggily in the dark.

The IFA and NIFL are currently looking at the future of the game here and part of that is a consultation process with the clubs on many issues, but key amongst them is summer football. White smoke on that is expected in the New Year and then we'll see where we go, whether it's mankinis or mittens.

But what do I know, here are the views of some of the great and good of the local game.

Gary Hamilton (Glenavon manager): "I think it's a non-starter for me. It was different when the League of Ireland changed to summer football because 80 per cent of the players were full-time and that obviously worked for them.

"Even now, about 35-40 per cent of the players are full-time footballers, and I think when it's a part-time environment and schools are being restricted on kids coming out of school, I just think it's never ever going to work in this country.

"At the end of the day the most important people in all this are the players, because they're the ones who provide the product, and if players have kids and they can only get out of school in July and August, realistically they're going to take the kids away, they're not going to sacrifice the kids' holidays.

"People talk about summer football, but we already have situations every year where teams go to play in Europe and don't have full squads to pick from, it doesn't matter whether it's Linfield, Crusaders, Glenavon, Coleraine or whoever. There's never been a team that has had a full squad to pick from, so in my opinion that would get even worse because every single week over that summer period, teams would be missing players.

"Until football is paying more money than other jobs, I think other jobs will dictate people's lives."

Matthew Snoddy (Crusaders): "It's something which I've never understood, why we haven't moved down that road. I don't know what is holding it back.

"I know some of the teams are maybe worried about losing the Boxing Day fixtures, but surely the attendance overall would go up with summer football and we could keep Amateur League football in the winter. If you look at the snow at the minute it is a hindrance and the quality of pitches is going down because of the bad weather, and I can only see it being a good thing.

"I don't know what is holding it back because most players I speak to think the same thing. Not many want to stay in winter. Summer holidays could be one sticking point but if you're a footballer you want to be playing on good quality pitches, not running about in snow.

Jason McCartney (Ballinamallard United, former Sligo Rovers player): "I would be for it, definitely. Even for supporters coming out watching, for gates for clubs, at a Saturday at 3pm you have English football on, it could be raining and cold outside, sitting in the stand freezing and especially those with kids who want to bring them, it could put them off.

"I think the pitches would be in a lot better nick and hopefully football would be better then to watch.

"When I watch Sligo Rovers and when they were in Europe and trying to qualify, they were halfway through the season, while here you have teams only coming back to pre-season. You may not be as strong as other clubs but you have a better chance because you're at the top end of your fitness. Down here anyone you ask, supporters or players, are all for it. They have a two-week break in June so the players can go on holiday and that keeps everyone happy.

Davy McCaig (Chairman, Spirit of '89 Ballymena United Supporters' Club): "The actual thought of summer football a decade ago had me and my moobs reclining in horror as football for me was always at 3pm on a cold, Slemish wind-filled Showgrounds on a Saturday fully festooned with BUFC hat, scarf and gloves. However, as the winter season seems to hit back that bit harder these days and our fixture backlog is starting to look ominous already, then surely every right-minded football fan has to consider football in the sun as a tangible prospect."

So, there you have it, this is only a small sample of opinion, the IFA and NIFL will have a much bigger dossier to look at. If they don't lose it under a snowdrift.

Final Word

Just what was going on with the cameras on Final Score last weekend? The highlights from Warrenpoint’s game with Crusaders were like watching an episode of NYPD Blue being filmed on a bouncy castle. I had to turn off before I had one of my bad turns, and that’s usually only brought on by Mark Sidebottom.

Billy tackles... Matthew Snoddy

IF you have the funny feeling that we’ve been here before then do not fret, you haven’t lost the run of yourself, Matthew Snoddy was indeed the subject of this feature last week.

But we refuse to be beaten by the weather so it is take two, with the Crusaders midfielder taking me on again, and hopefully this time Angie, Cecilia, Barra and the other one play ball, otherwise the authorities will be on with me to ask me to stop stalking the same player.

The usual rules apply, three points for an exact scoreline and one for a correct outcome, with Matthew unable to predict his side’s clash with Glentoran. As long as he doesn’t forecast snow!

Ballinamallard Utd v Coleraine; Saturday (3.00pm)

Ballinamallard are having a hard time at the minute and I can’t see it going any other way than a Coleraine win. I know Coleraine haven’t a great record down there and they’re a bit of a bogey team but I’ll still go for them.

Snoddy prediction: 0-2

Weir prediction: 1-1

Cliftonville v Glentoran; Saturday (3.00pm)

That’s a really tough one. I was impressed with Glentoran when we played them. They set up a really good shape and they were hard to break down and looked dangerous on the counter-attack, but Cliftonville have been going really well.

Snoddy prediction: 1-1

Weir prediction: 2-1

Linfield v Warrenpoint Town; Saturday (3.00pm)

I was impressed with Warrenpoint last Saturday. They have a lot going forward, but Linfield have home advantage — I think it will be a close game but Linfield will come through it and be victorious.

Snoddy prediction: 1-0

Weir prediction: 3-1

Dungannon Swifts v Ards; Saturday (3.00pm)

Two pretty evenly matched teams at the minute and I can see there being goals in this game. Dungannon are always coming close and don’t seem to concede many goals or get heavy defeats, but are just struggling to get the points. Ards are hit and miss, getting a good result and then not doing so well against a team they were expected to beat.

Snoddy prediction: 2-2

Weir prediction: 2-1

Ballymena United v Carrick Rangers; Saturday (3.00pm)

I was surprised by Carrick the other week as they gave us a tough game and I was expecting us to win a lot easier than we did. But Ballymena are hitting a bit of form at the minute and with home advantage I have to go for them.

Snoddy prediction: 3-1

Weir prediction: 2-0

Season’s standings: Players 8 - 5 Weir

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