Belfast Telegraph

Irish League's future at crossroads with big calls to make

Centre ot attention: Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton has words with referee Raymond Crangle
Centre ot attention: Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton has words with referee Raymond Crangle

By Graham Luney

Greetings everyone. I trust you enjoyed our summer heatwave and aren't too sunburnt.

The Saturday afternoon shopping trips have ended and the threat of becoming lost in Ireland's largest lingerie section, Father Ted style, is over.

We were hoping the Setanta Sports Cup might offer some relief from the withdrawal symptoms, but that didn't exactly go according to plan.

And there was no truth in the rumour that the FAI asked Fifa for £3.6m to keep the all-Ireland tournament in business.

The weather may be rather dreary, but things are about to get hot and heavy in the 125th season of Irish League football.

There are massive issues that are threatening to cause the game serious harm and when Gerard Lawlor, chairman of the Premiership Management Committee, touched on the subject of illegal payments in his speech at the league launch you know the Northern Ireland Football League are prepared to grasp this nettle.

But the biggest concern to all supporters should be the shortage of senior referees.

Younger, inexperienced officials are being thrown in at the deep end and the nightmare scenario is we start to lose faith in referees.

There have been so many administrative blunders that supporters are unconvinced the men and women running the show can be trusted to get things right. So if we also lose faith in the refs then we are left with nothing as the game is not worth watching.

We are nowhere near that crisis point, but it's clear we must change course and at least the Irish FA have recognised there is a problem.

The fun has already started with an impressive launch at Titanic Belfast and an entertaining first round of fixtures, but the Irish League never fails to serve up a healthy dose of controversy.

Here's my wish-list for this season. Firstly, any crackdown on illegal payments is to be applauded. There cannot be a Lance Armstrong mentality around the league - 'everyone is doing this, so this is what we have to do to win'.

The sad reality is that clubs are continuing to gamble on their financial futures, but spending on wages needs to be curbed. If only a few clubs are guilty of 'off books' payments, they should not be allowed to bend the rules to gain advantage over others.

A heavy points deduction would make them change their behaviour.

Some of the players may be getting good money, but that doesn't mean they will do the business on the pitch. Ironically, Glentoran - who have tightened the purse strings - have won the Irish Cup twice in three years.

Secondly, we need better refereeing. When you've stopped laughing it's got be pointed out that refs can never be immune from criticism as clubs and fans pay their fees and should expect solid performances. It's not an easy job and the refs are under incredible pressure. They deserve our support, particularly when they perform well, but we don't need any more dodgy decisions in major finals. Managers get upset easily and rightly so as poor decisions can get them fired.

Thirdly, I want the game's administrators, particularly the disciplinary chiefs, to know the rules and enforce them properly. I'm surprised the IFA haven't already conducted a poll of their website asking the question, is Gary Hamilton a player or a manager?

Fourthly, I want players to behave themselves on Twitter. It's a passionate game, but you must choose your words carefully. You are being watched and punishments will follow.

My fifth wish is for clubs get more cash - not to spend on players, but to invest in better facilities. And let's hope the foundations underneath our stadiums hold firm, unlike Windsor Park's Kop Stand that was as stable as a drunk reveller on the dance floor back in April.

Regardlesss of it's imperfections, our game is still magical and it was great to see Isaac Andrews and Jim Cleary at the league launch.

There's only one word for those guys - legends.

More heroes will emerge, but we should also pause to reflect on the sad passing of Jackie Hutton, Wesley Gregg, Benny Lynch and Bertie Neill.

Their service and dedication to our game will not be forgotten.

Enjoy the season and the inevitable madness it will bring.




Belfast Telegraph


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