In the second part of our exclusive interview with Northern Ireland Football League chief executive Gerard Lawlor, Steven Beacom begins by asking him about our young players getting big moves.
Q. In recent times many more young players have left the Irish League for clubs across the water, with Trai Hume moving from Linfield to Sunderland the latest example. How do you feel about that?
A. It’s great that the Irish League is producing a product and players that clubs from across the water want. It enhances our league, puts it in a shop window and gives us a platform to progress. That is brilliant.
I have clashed with former international managers on this but I’m a great believer that kids shouldn’t be going to England or Scotland at 15 or 16 years of age.
If you look at a lot of our success stories like Liam Boyce, Stuart Dallas and Gareth McAuley, they went later in their lives. I think the Irish League is a great breeding ground for young players in learning their trade.
Trai Hume going from Linfield to Sunderland is a fantastic story for us. Linfield Football Club deserve a lot of credit.
They probably could have done something with Trai two years ago and he would have gone to an Academy in England and ended up on a YTS or scholarship.
David Healy saw potential, sent him out on loan to Ballymena and brought him back and now they have sold him on.
I think that works best for all parties. I’d like to see young boys stay in the Irish League, learn their trade and then go across the water as opposed to just moving across the water into an Academy set-up.
Q. The Irish League transfer window has become an event on its own with so many eye-catching moves. Your thoughts?
A. Many years ago someone said to me the Irish League was seen as a league that players didn’t want to be in and they only played in it because they couldn’t get a move to England, Scotland or down south.
So, the real positive is we have moved away from that.
We want the Irish League to move forward and that ultimately takes a better calibre of player and I think it is fantastic that quality players are staying in the Irish League and others are coming into it which leads to a better product.
I believe that there are players out there who would never have entertained playing in the Irish League previously and are now attracted to play in our game. That can only be good.
Q. What about fears that with certain clubs spending big on transfers, signing-on fees and wages and others unable to come close to that, that a them and us scenario will become more prevalent in the Irish League, thus the Premiership could lose its competitive edge across the division?
A. If our clubs are able to afford the transfers and do business then fantastic. We have cried for 20 or 30 years about Irish League clubs being skint and not able to do any business, so we can’t cry now that clubs are able to do business and in every world people have to run their business as they see fit. We don’t want an elite two or three clubs but I don’t believe that will happen. We have club licensing that makes sure clubs are being run properly and being run on a level playing field.
Q. Previously there was a salary cap protocol in the Irish League but that was done away with when Covid came into our lives.
A. Yes, that was probably outdated and there was a proposal that we needed to tweak the system. Work had started on that and then Covid kicked in. We have discussed a new model with the Irish Premiership committee on a few occasions and next week we will hopefully be bringing a final draft on a new proposal so we would hope there would be a new salary cost protocol.
These aren’t mechanisms to stop clubs spending or developing. The model can’t hold back clubs that want to spend money. It also has to help other clubs develop. I see the concerns of other clubs.
There are 12 clubs in the Premiership and there has to be a piece of the cake for everyone and we have to find a strategy and way forward for everyone. In all aspects of life someone will always get a bigger slice of cake than someone else but isn’t it better to get a smaller slice of cake than nothing at all?
For example, if Larne spent X on their new signing Lee Bonis and Portadown got Y, does that Y not help Portadown develop and improve?
We can’t celebrate Trai Hume going to Sunderland for X from Linfield and say it is great for the Irish League and then criticise an Irish League club for wanting to spend their own money which is being kept in the Irish League family.
Q. Are you confident that all clubs are doing things right and above board?
A. It is my job to ensure all clubs are doing things right along with the Irish FA. We can’t do it on our own. Do I trust our clubs? Yes, I trust our member clubs. There are rules that have been agreed and there are restrictions.
One thing I will promise is that if clubs are not following the rules and procedures that they have agreed to and set down they will be heavily punished and we won’t jerk that responsibility for the good of the other members.