Ballymena United manager David Jeffrey says it would be a “mini-disaster” if Irish League clubs lose a financially lucrative European place.
One of the four European spots could disappear from the end of next season, delivering a financial blow of around £250,000 to the league unless results improve in continental competition this summer.
The Irish League ranking of 52nd — a co-efficient of 3.875 — is lower than nations such as Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands, with only Kosovo, Andorra and San Marino below them in the table.
This lowest-ever ranking, which has fallen from 44th in 2015, means a Europa League place could be lost unless clubs secure victories this summer.
“European money for Irish League clubs is vital in terms of development, not just in terms of the depth and quality of the squad,” said former Linfield boss Jeffrey.
“I know that when Bryan (McLoughlin) and I worked at Linfield we always wanted to perform well for the Irish League as well as the club. That’s why I could never understand supporters who were not prepared to get behind other Irish League clubs in Europe.
“European success was in the best interests of the league, and if the places are cut from four to three it would be nothing short of a mini-disaster.
“I really hope that it doesn’t happen and those clubs that qualify for Europe this summer get a kind draw which enables them to progress and get our co-efficient up.”
Crusaders treasurer Tommy Whiteside added: “We are in danger of losing a European place. If our co-efficient remains where it is we will be down to three European places.
“It will affect the whole league because you will lose around £250,000 here every season. That’s a massive blow.
“It’s part of the reason why clubs here are going more professional.”
But the more positive news for Irish League clubs is that a new third-tier tournament will start in 2021, guaranteeing three European games for the champions.
The immediate target for clubs, however, is to secure better results in European competition this summer or risk saying farewell to a Europa League place from next season.
Crusaders played in the first round of the Champions League last summer, and this year Linfield, should they beat Ballymena United to the league title, may also receive a bye into the first round.
The Irish Cup winners will go into round one of the Europa League but the other two sides that qualify will contest the preliminary rounds alongside teams from Luxembourg, Wales, Gibraltar, Kosovo, Andorra and San Marino.
If Crusaders win the Irish Cup, their higher co-efficient should see them seeded for the draw.
But the bigger picture is that Irish League sides must deliver a few more knockout blows in Europe to halt the slide down the rankings.
Jeffrey, whose Ballymena United side clinched a European spot in his first year at the club, added: "People have heard me talk about the importance of Ballymena United getting to the top six and qualifying for Europe. The simple reason is we have looked at the journey of Crusaders, Cliftonville, Glenavon and Coleraine, as well as Linfield, recognising how they have been able to progress as clubs.
"There is a new phenomenon with what is happening at Larne, and possibly at Glentoran, but the long and short of it is the European money is vital for clubs' development.
"Our league, in conjunction with the Irish FA, need to be looking at ways to make our teams more competitive in Europe.
"This is a task at a number of levels. NIFL and the IFA can help clubs be more competitive, and as well as the development of the game locally you have to remember the number of Irish League players who have gone into the professional game and been part of Michael's (O'Neill) international squad, along with the Under-21s.
"European football is a great education for the players and we need to be very pro-active as a football community in Northern Ireland."
There is also the prospect of the Irish League winners having to compete in a four-team minnows tournament with the champions of Kosovo, Andorra and San Marino next summer.
It's played on a straight knockout basis over four days at one venue, however only the winners of the tournament will qualify for the first round proper. In June 2018 the tournament took place in Gibraltar as it was the highest ranked of the bottom four countries at the time, so next year's mini-tournament could be held in Northern Ireland.
Crusaders earned around €800,000 from their Champions League exploits last summer and their decision to go three-quarters full-time is aimed at improving European qualification hopes and performances.