Clubs can dream of a new Europa League windfall
Cash from group stages can transform fortunes
Crusaders treasurer Tommy Whiteside believes Irish League clubs could be on course to reach the group stages of the Europa League.
Changes to Uefa's European qualification process mean the Irish League champions will be afforded a second bite at the European cherry - starting this summer - but Whiteside believes there's an even bigger good news story on the horizon for our clubs.
That's because from 2021, the group stages of the Europa League could rise from 48 to 64 clubs, giving smaller sides a greater chance to progress.
"The European money has increased for our clubs over the years and the financial rewards are massive," says Whiteside.
"It's very difficult for Irish League clubs to progress through a few rounds in Europe and the expansion of the Europa League group stages will make that challenge easier. Can an Irish league team make the group stages of a European competition? I think they can. It's not likely but it's not impossible."
There is immediate good news for this year's title winners as if they exit the Champions League, they will be shipped into a new Europa League Champions route. A minimum of around £701k can be secured but that figure will shoot up if they an win in Europe or land a glamour tie.
"This additional money is really fantastic news for our clubs and it is one of the contributing factors why we are adopting a more professional set-up, with the players training three and sometimes four times a week," added Whiteside. "Everything is geared towards doing well domestically and in Europe. I think the funding is so substantial that it can keep you going for a number of years.
"Crusaders have been able to deal with historical debts while investing in a new pitch and training facilities in Newtownabbey for about 42 youth teams with a new fence and floodlighting.
"Construction work is starting on our new McDonald Centre which will be a modern community hub.
"In our best year in Europe we earned around €800,000 but the exchange rate was so poor we got about £540,000.
"We have qualified for the European money for eight years now and that's very imporant because that's where the money is.
"Clubs also receive solidarity payments for youth development, and they are around £33,000, but the potential is there for that figure to double by December of next year.
"If our coefficient can rise then all clubs stand to benefit more financially."
The big cash windfalls from Uefa have led to calls for the Premiership season to switch to the summer months to give our clubs a more competitive edge on the continent and, though the NI Football League have opened a consultation process, support for summer football has been lacking.
Crusaders have, however, forwarded a proposal which would retain the popular Boxing Day fixtures.
"We proposed to start the season in May and end it in February so the Christmas and Boxing Day schedule doesn't change," added Whiteside.
"I think the challenges for part-time players in Europe are huge, they can be faced with four games in four weeks and they need to get time off work.
"But the European money can make a huge difference to clubs and it's a big opportunity that must be grasped. The prize money for winning the league is short of £30,000.
"I honestly don't believe people within the league understand where the money comes from and how important that European funding is."