Billy Weir: What are the pros and cons of an All-Island league as clubs meet to discuss Lucid's plans?
Today is D-Day for football on the island of Ireland. No, not Dunkirk, but Dundalk, as representatives from clubs both north and south of an imaginary/real border gather to be convinced unity is the way forward.
Now, before I have Arlene Foster kicking my door in, we are purely talking about football/soccer (this could get messy) here, the plans of a think-tank led by millionaire Kerryman Kieran Lucid setting out their proposals on how to develop an all-island league.
Of course, there is nothing new in trying to engender cross-border competition — not always hugely successful but, a bit like a bearded lady or spider baby at the fair, always worth a sneaky look.
Most recently we had the Setanta Sports Cup, but older members of both parishes will remember the Blaxnit Cup and Texaco Cup, while there was also the Irish News Cup for the north west teams for a wee while, too. But talk of a league? Well that’s something altogether different.
Lucid, as his name suggests, is pretty clear that this is the way forward. He has already had talks with clubs on both sides of the border and, in general terms, it would be fair to say the more positive vibes are chiming from down south.
Now, I’m not saying that shouting ‘no’ and refusing to consider change of any kind is a trait amongst us up in this part of the woods, but the big difference this time, and it is mammoth in football terms, is that Linfield seem to very interested.
Lucid (right) told this paper earlier this week that the Dundalk get-together would, hopefully, be just the first of many meetings, and in the simplest terms, what he and his impressive team proposes is this: a new league starting in 2021, with 34 teams over three divisions (14, 10 and 10), with representatives from 20 League of Ireland sides, teams from the Danske Bank Premiership and those from the Championship who have played in the top division in the past five years invited. The second two tiers will be, in effect, two regional championships, with promotion available.
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The top division will have eight League of Ireland sides, five from the Irish League and the other from a play-off between the Division One champions in the Republic and the sixth-placed team in the Danske Bank Premiership, with two from the Championship.
That is purely the footballing nuts and bolts, there is much more besides with prize money, TV revenue, sponsorship, European places and how and who would run the leagues also in the brewing pot.
As I mentioned earlier, Linfield have poked their nose up from the trenches to see what’s on offer. General manager Pat Fenlon is the ideal man to lead them forward on this, with a wealth of experience in the game on both sides of the border.
“Linfield’s position is we will attend the meeting and see what is on the table,” said Fenlon.
“Both leagues need development and need to improve, so my view is you explore all avenues until you come to a conclusion for what is best for both leagues.”
And for once there is unity between foes, with Glentoran manager Mick McDermott firmly embracing the moves towards an All-Island League and summer football.
“On the football side, I think it would definitely be beneficial for further developing football to a higher level,” he told this week’s Irish League Behaviour podcast.
“There are a lot of financial and logistical things to be figured out but I think it would be very attractive for developing football in Ireland.”
At Derry City, Declan Devine — another man who has played in both leagues — is another fan of change.
“For me, it would be brilliant, but do I expect it to happen? Probably not, but it’s certainly something which should be discussed openly and people being informed on what’s happening. An opportunity now for an All-Ireland League is something I wouldn’t like to see wasted.”
Likewise Paddy McLaughlin at Cliftonville, who also dipped his toe in both leagues, is another who would go for it, saying: “If the league wants to progress, they need to consider summer football and an All-Ireland League. Serious consideration is required.”
Generally speaking, there seems to be a much more positive reaction coming from teams in the Airtricity Premier League, the likes of Stephen Bradley at Shamrock Rovers, Keith Long at Bohemians and several others all saying they will certainly be listening to what Lucid and his team has to say.
So, what are the pros and cons for teams from here making the move? Is it one giant step or turkeys voting for Christmas?
More money: Lucid says he already has an seven-figure offer from a TV company to broadcast the league and prize money on the table would far exceed that on offer at present, plus the potential betting markets at home and abroad could bring in much more cash.
Summer football: This would mean games being played in better conditions, training carried out on better facilities and fans not having to travel longer distances in the worse weather and, for two or three months, giving an alternative to cross-channel action.
Something new: It isn’t the panacea to cure all ills, but to develop you have look at the bigger picture and conclude that the smaller teams in the Danske Bank Premiership are always going to be small, unless they find their own Kenny Bruce.
Investment: The TV revenue and prize money can only help to improve facilities, something that is badly needed on both sides of the border, to try and attract a new fan base. There is a massive, largely untapped, audience who need to be convinced that, rather than sit and watch the Premier League, Scottish football or whatever continental exotica takes your fancy, there is a good, high quality product close to home.
Media coverage: It depends who gets the rights but you imagine if they are ready to pump the money in, they are not going to be shy on making it sing and dance on the telly.
Novelty factor: The biggest grumble seems to be ‘oh, how can we go from Coleraine to Cork on a Tuesday night?’. Err, have the wit not to arrange the games on those nights. There has to be common sense when it comes to scheduling of games, but the travelling fans love a day out and they could make a weekend out of heading down to Cork, Galway, Dublin etc and vice versa.
They’re not cowboys: Lucid may have no football background but he has the likes of ex-Republic boss Brian Kerr and former English FA big noise Alex Horne and former Glentoran chairman Stafford Reynolds helping lead his plan.
Small steps: The Champions Cup between Dundalk and Linfield next month will be a taster of what could become a much more regular thing, so it will be interesting to see what happens there.
Loss of identity: Yes, that old chestnut. Never mind Brexit, hard borders and soft borders, Alan Border would be stumped by this one. You have to tip-toe very delicately around the minefield that is anything ‘all-Ireland’ for fear up upsetting anyone just longing to be upset. However, local fans, myself included, are very protective of their wee league and wouldn’t want to be an after-thought.
Loss of European place: Given the financial incentive to get to Europe, it would seem strange that teams from here would jump into a new world where it will be even harder to munch on that tasty Euro carrot. That’s where the prize money just for competing will have to come in to soften any blows.
Creating a bigger divide: The past couple of seasons have witnessed a change in attitudes in Northern Ireland with regards to moving towards a full-time set-up. Crusaders, Larne and Glentoran are leading the way, those Euros burning a hole in Linfield’s pocket are making them edge ever closer to taking the next step but, apart from that, is there anyone else ready? I doubt it. Could Cliftonville, Coleraine, Ballymena United or Glenavon really countenance going into a new set-up on a part-time footing?
Security: They haven’t gone away, you know. There are still a fair few head-the-balls who see going to football as a way of expressing their Neanderthal needs, and police on both sides of the border will have their own concerns if the ante is upped.
Who will run it?: NIFL isn’t perfect, but they have certainly helped give a more professional feel to things, and will they be thrown under the bus if we go to an All-Island League? There would be huge arguments as to who will run it and where it will be based. I know, stick the office on the border, it can carry out custom checks in quiet times. Brexit and an All-Island League sorted!
International consequences: Persuading Uefa and Fifa that we are suddenly a one-island League but still wanting to have two international teams may be the trickiest hurdle of all to overcome.
Scheduling: Summer football is already a thorny subject. One big concern for NIFL clubs is the loss of the Boxing Day derby games, so any new calendar would certainly have to take that into account.
Travelling: Not just for the fans but for the teams too. Part-time players can’t take a day off work to travel much longer distances, while for certain trips there would be added expenses for the clubs for hotels and the like.
So, it’s Jerry Springer conclusion time.
What have we learned? Well, nothing as yet, but I would appeal to all the clubs to go in with an open mind and see what is on offer.
In all honesty, can I see it happening? No. But, then again, I didn’t see the referendum going the way it did, Scotland rejecting independence, the magic of Poptarts or that the Irish League would be on Sky.
There is much talking to be done. Don’t go in like Zammo McGuire and just say no, go in like Jerry Maguire and ask them to show you the money.
Belfast Telegraph Digital