Belfast Telegraph

David Jeffrey: Why Irish League clubs need guarantees before considering All-Ireland League proposal

"Unless we have some guarantee around European places, it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas"

Follow my lead: David Jeffrey has concerns about an all-Ireland league
Follow my lead: David Jeffrey has concerns about an all-Ireland league

By Graham Luney

David Jeffrey says he fears an all-Ireland league would restrict the number of European places available to Northern Ireland clubs and leave them in danger of being overpowered by their southern rivals.

Tech entrepreneur Kieran Lucid is driving forward his plans for an all-island league and clubs are being informed of the ambitious proposal.

Lucid and a working group that includes former Republic of Ireland boss Brian Kerr are looking to merge the League of Ireland and NI Football League (NIFL) to establish a new 14-team top flight with two 10-team regionalised divisions below it.

A broadcaster has already indicated it would pay around £1m for the rights, but Jeffrey, whose Linfield side were inaugural Setanta Cup winners in 2005, has significant concerns regarding the plans.

The Ballymena United boss, preparing for his side's Europa League clash at home to NSI Runavik of the Faroe Islands tonight, feels Northern Ireland clubs would struggle to compete with their full-time rivals in the south and could lose more financially lucrative European places.

United will pocket at least £195,000 from the fixture, but winning one round will set up a tie against Malmo and bring their fee up to £409,000.

NIFL will lose one of its three Europa League places as they are ranked below 50th in the country coefficients table and will be allocated just two spots for the 2020/21 season.

Jeffrey feels the European berths and the funding that comes with them are worth fighting to keep hold of, but they could be harder to attain in an all-Ireland league.

"Regarding the principle and from a romantic view, it's a lovely idea, but I would take a pragmatic and practical view," said Jeffrey.

"You've got to ask the question how many European places would there be for Northern Irish sides, so there's a lot of anomalies about it for me.

"Unless we have some guarantee around European places, it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas.

"We are already losing one European place in the Irish League and if you look at the southern clubs, they are stronger than us at the moment.

"If you look at Cork, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers, look at the money they are paying their players and their full-time set-ups. We have Crusaders who are trying to get there, Linfield have talked about it and Larne are probably the purest full-time team we have, and Glentoran have talked about it.

"You are talking about wages for full-time players and the cost of travel among many other issues. I was a big champion and supporter of the Setanta Cup, and we enjoyed great times at Linfield, but, as times progressed, it seemed to favour our southern counterparts more than Irish League teams.

"We would all like to see our game get better but it's important to be pragmatic and practical. One of the greatest clubs was Shelbourne, who went for European glory and overpunched. They got relegated and haven't got back into the Premiership yet.

"That's one example of where things can go wrong."

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill and the Irish FA have argued that a move to summer football would give our clubs more of a fighting chance in Europe and consultations are under way to determine whether the dates of the season should change. A move to a summer schedule is perhaps more likely than an all-Ireland set-up unless Lucid can make a compelling argument to clubs.

Jeffrey, meanwhile, has sensed a "greater focus" among Irish League sides this summer as the Northern Ireland fightback on the European stage begins tonight.

While Cliftonville are in Wales to take on Barry Town United, the Sky Blues are also in Europa League preliminary round action when NSI arrive at the Showgrounds.

As Crusaders await B36 Torshavn in the Europa League and Linfield prepare to face Rosenborg in the Champions League, the Danske Bank Premiership sides acknowledge that there's more than pride on the line. The fight is on to recover that lost European place.

After all, Irish League clubs are on course to bank anything from £1.3m to a realistic £2.3m jackpot in prize-money from their European campaigns this year.

Jeffrey, who guided his side to a runner-up finish in the Premiership last season, believes our sides have always possessed a will to win in Europe, but he accepts the loss of a continental place has concentrated minds more than ever.

"I don't think we have been less determined in previous years when it comes to wanting to be successful in Europe," said the former Linfield boss.

"We have always wanted to win, I think we have a greater focus this year.

"Many years ago people might have seen it as a bit of a jolly or a reward - let's go to a nice country and play football.

"The result was secondary but that's not how Irish League clubs are perceived now. Clubs want to enjoy the experience but also want to perform well.

"The Uefa coefficient and financial prize is part of the bigger picture.

"There's more of a focus from clubs to do better."

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