IFA investment can halt tide of Euro woe: Crues chief
A leading Crusaders official has pleaded with the Irish FA to provide more investment so Irish League clubs can remain competitive in Europe.
The Crues will compete in the Europa League qualifiers this summer if they can conquer Ballinamallard United in Saturday’s Irish Cup final, but there is a real danger one continental spot could be taken away from the Irish League unless clubs secure positive results next season.
Northern Ireland is currently 52nd out of 55 nations in the 2018/2019 Uefa Co-efficient list and football chiefs understand they need to redouble efforts to keep hold of their lucrative four places, guaranteeing a cash windfall for clubs.
League champions Linfield will play at least four European games, pocketing a minimum £686,000, while the Europa League spots are worth around £200,000 for each club.
Ballymena United were the first team to claim one of the three Europa League places this year. Crusaders have embraced a more full-time culture this season and Mark Langhammer, the club’s vice-chair, has urged the association to up their game to reverse the tide of disappointment in Europe.
“Just before Irish Cup final day, the blue-riband finale of the domestic season, it’s sobering to reflect that the Irish League is now ranked 52nd of 55 European Leagues,” he said.
“How has our league plummeted lower than the leagues of the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar or Montenegro, just ahead of Kosovo, Andorra and San Marino? Investment, mainly.
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“The Irish Football Association’s 2017 strategy set ambitious targets for the domestic league to break into the top 40 of European leagues. Breaking the top 40 is a big ask and requires serious commitment and investment.”
The Irish FA and Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill have suggested that a switch to summer football could be considered by clubs but there is insufficient support for that radical change.
“To be fair, the IFA have pressed the need for a change in seasonality, to allow local clubs a competitive run-in to Europe,” added Langhammer.
“The failure to adopt this obvious ‘no brainer’ change lies with clubs. Elsewhere, the IFA can step up.
“The IFA commits to ‘rebuilding the football estate’ with ‘significant high-profile redevelopments of NIFL Premiership grounds’, but in my view that hs not materialised. We need to see more of the money that the IFA receives every year to help develop stadia and facilities through Uefa’s Hat-Trick fund.
“Next week, Crusaders will take a group of coaches and administrators to Iceland to see how they do things. The Icelandics, with a tiny population of just over 320,000, have risen 20 places above Northern Ireland.
“The Icelandic Football Association works closely with clubs, government and municipalities to develop stadia, facilities, quality paid coaching and research-based approaches.”
The Irish FA maintain they are committed to helping clubs in areas such as administration and coaching, with O’Neill keen to offer his help and guidance.