It has been an eventful season in the Irish League to date. Today, in an exclusive interview, Steven Beacom discusses the major issues with new Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) Chief Executive Gerard Lawlor.
Q. How have your first few months gone in your new role?
A. I’ve enjoyed and loved every minute of it. It’s been a lot more intense than I thought. Sometimes it is 13 and 14 hour days and we have to accommodate that because the personnel of so many of our clubs are working during the day. It has been a rollercoaster, really busy and rewarding. It has also been challenging and fascinating getting that insight into our clubs from the top of the Premiership to the PIL. It has been a cocktail of everything and has increased my passion and commitment to making a difference in our game.
Q. Right then, to some big subjects in the Irish League. The standard of refereeing is a major talking point. This season many managers have slammed the quality of officiating. What’s your view?
A. I believe refereeing is one of the hardest jobs in football. Has there been a number of high profile refereeing mistakes in the Irish League? Yes, there has.
Do I have sympathy for referees? Yes I do. At NIFL we do a SWOT analysis each week with our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and refereeing is a threat to the league.
The playing standard has improved. Everything else is moving on and has refereeing in Northern Ireland caught up with the rest of the game? I think I would be very naive if I answered that question with yes.
There are concerns within NIFL about the standards of refereeing and I have addressed those with the Irish FA. I am the type of person who would always look to find a solution and that’s what we must strive to do.
This is a challenge where we all need to come together as a football family. We have to help referees and support referees. I think players and managers have a part to play in that and we also need to make the refereeing fraternity more open and transparent.
I have had a conversation with the Chief Executive of the IFA (Patrick Nelson) about that. We need a refereeing strategy and to know where our next group of referees is coming from. Refereeing comes under the IFA but it does have a major impact on our league.
Do we have problems within refereeing? Yes, we do. Is the standard at this moment good? Probably it’s not the best it’s ever been but how can we create an environment that allows them to make the correct decisions and how can the IFA improve the system?
This weekend in a new pilot project, managers will feed back on the performance of the referee. It is a NIFL pilot so what we are saying to them is 24 hours after the game, we will send the managers a questionnaire. A complaint from managers is they don’t get a voice so they will receive a questionnaire and it will give them an opportunity to offer feedback.
That information will come back to NIFL. We will collate it and then share it with the IFA. Yes, one of the major concerns I have for the progression of the league is refereeing but it’s easy for everyone to have a go at referees.
If we are always slating and crushing them, is that really going to get the best out of them and bring new referees into our game? The game needs to be very careful in how we try and make the process better in the short term and, in long term, I feel we may need help from the wider world such as Uefa and Fifa and use their expertise.
Q. Will VAR (Video Assistant Referee) ever come to the Irish League?
A. I think it will come in the future. There is a project in some countries who are running VAR light. It is my understanding that’s a mini system with two or three cameras within a stadium. Uefa have trialled it in some countries and it needs one person. It is a more simplified version of VAR. Do I think in the next 10 years VAR will be in the Irish League and will be a requirement of clubs? Yes, I do.
Q. Last year you wrote to the First Minister (Paul Givan) and Deputy First Minister (Michelle O’Neill) about stadia funding for Irish League clubs. What’s the latest on that?
A. At this stage I’m very disappointed that I haven’t received a reply from the First or Deputy First Minister. We wrote on the first of December. I have received correspondence from the Sports Minister (Deirdre Hargey) but, with all due respect, it wasn’t the Sports Minister I wrote the letter to. I specifically asked the First and Deputy First Minister to take control and, as yet, I haven’t had a reply. We will be following it up in the very near future.
Q. How do you see this playing out?
A. We are at a crossroads and we will struggle to go forward unless we have investment in our stadia. The one thing that really holds our clubs back right now is the stadiums. We can’t deliver a family fun environment, which we want to do, at all of our grounds and I think stadia finance and the development of stadia is key to the progression of the Irish League.
You look at how much Ulster Rugby and Northern Ireland has developed on the back of their new stadiums and government investment, and that is about a match day experience. It’s about facilities and comfort for people and I sincerely hope Irish League football is given the funding that was promised several years ago.
Q. What’s the latest update on the summer football debate?
A. A working group set up by the Premiership have held discussions on this subject. They are doing further investigations and that work is ongoing. We are still gathering information and doing research to bring back to the full Premier League committee. It is a sensitive subject and I’m very clear the decision is with the clubs. As a league, we will offer support but the clubs will make the final decision one way or another.
Q. In recent times, Kenny Bruce at Larne and Ali Pour at Glentoran have taken over and invested heavily in those football clubs. Your opinion on that?
A. I would like to see further investment come into the league to help the clubs. Look at what Kenny Bruce and Larne have brought. They have been a breath of fresh air.
Kenny is a businessman and, while the team have improved, you also must assess what they have done with the stadium and the community. That raises the bar. I also look at the Glentoran project and what they have brought to the table and think it would be great to have more business people and investors attracted to our clubs but never losing the ethos of what makes our league important because I think we have a very unique selling point and that is the passion and commitment of local supporters.
Q. Tell us what other plans you have for NIFL?
A. Well, there has to be a post-Covid plan for the Irish League. That is a big challenge for the future and the bottom line is about getting bums on seats. We want to create a product that people want to watch and we want to get people into our stadiums.
A balance also has to be struck with our television partners and I think it is exciting we have so many games available to watch live now. Moving forward, we have to come away from a total 3 o’clock programme on a Saturday afternoon. 3pm on a Saturday will always be the traditional time to play football in Northern Ireland but I would like to see us through time spreading out a weekend of football and always have a Friday night game so you know every week there is a Friday night game.
Is there also an opportunity to have an earlier game on a Saturday? I would think we would always need to keep three games on a Saturday afternoon and is there a chance to have a later game on a Saturday? Again, it’s about creating opportunities for clubs to fit within a football weekend framework and we can look at Sunday too.
Some may say that we are competing with a big Premier League game in England on a Sunday but we do that all the time at 3pm on a Saturday because, let’s be honest, people can see those 3pm games at home or in bars.
We are always competing with the Premier League. It’s now time to have some belief in ourselves and the product. In Northern Ireland, we are very good at putting ourselves down. When I look at other nations our size, we have one hell of a league here.
My wish and desire is to get all the clubs to buy into one strategy and go forward. We will always have rivalries and everyone wants their team to win but if we can move forward together, our football will be stronger for it.
At the end of my tenure, if I could have brought 12 clubs to the table working in the same direction and having pride in our league to improve for the good of all, I’ll be a happy man.