Danske Bank Premiership
Sunday football is on the way to the Danske Bank Premiership next season.
Following the huge success of the historic Sunday BetMcLean League Cup final in March between Cliftonville and Coleraine, a number of top-flight clubs in Northern Ireland have expressed an interest in playing league games on a Sunday in the 2022-2023 campaign.
The Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) recently wrote to all 12 Premiership sides to ask them for their views about playing on a Sunday with over 50% giving a positive response and others open to the idea depending on internal discussions.
It is believed that Glentoran, Cliftonville, Larne and Newry City are among those keen to give the Sunday game a go.
The first Sunday fixture in the Premiership was played at The Oval between Glentoran and Bangor in 2008 after both clubs agreed to move the match when it was postponed the previous day because of a waterlogged pitch.
The year before, an amendment had been made to Irish FA rules allowing Sunday matches if the two participating teams went along with it.
That match 14 years ago, attended by 2,500 fans with around 30 protestors outside the ground, didn’t spark a flurry of Sunday fixtures with the traditional 3pm kick-off time on Saturdays remaining dominant.
Times have changed more recently due to live television coverage with some Irish Premiership matches moved to Friday nights and 5.30pm on a Saturday.
On Sunday, March 13, a crowd of 11,103 — the biggest domestic attendance of the season — turned up to Windsor Park to watch Cliftonville defeat Coleraine 4-3 in a classic NIFL League Cup decider, showing the numbers that can be achieved with some outside the box thinking.
It was a huge triumph for NIFL and Chief Executive Gerard Lawlor, who had the vision to make it happen. There is a determination at NIFL Headquarters to build on that and with several clubs declaring their interest in league games on a Sunday, Lawlor’s plan for a weekend of football in the top division here, starting on a Friday night, could come to fruition.
“At NIFL we are determined to move our game forward and Sunday football is one area that may give us the opportunity to do that. It is something we need to talk about and it is something we need to trial,” said Lawlor.
“Some clubs have been talking to me for a while now about having Sunday matches and my suggestion is to give it a go.
“It is only by trying and trialling it that we will see if it works. I’m not talking about playing on a Sunday every weekend and there are some clubs for whom Sunday won’t work and we have to respect them and allow them to play whenever suits them but if Sunday is a success for others, maybe those clubs might start to think we need to click into it.
“I still think 3pm on a Saturday will be the traditional time for Irish League football but to have a Sunday game that could increase the crowd, the revenue and improve the occasion would be fantastic.
“If we ended up with four or five games on a Sunday next season in the Irish League, I think that’s a start. If it works we can look to the next stage with it and if it doesn’t at least we can say we tried it.”
Former Cliftonville chairman Lawlor and the NIFL staff are shrewd enough to see the bigger picture surrounding the issue of attracting the general public into Irish League stadiums and continuing to increase attendances in the face of external competition — an important point that has been missed in the past.
“We have a fan base of people who will go to different games at different times so we have to give people options and having a weekend of football is a way of doing that,” said Lawlor.
“If we don’t give the general public what they want they are obviously going to go and do other things and do other leisure activities.
“We are competing for that leisure pound which is hard to earn these days because of the cost of living and with people not having as much to spend.
“The Irish League is a very cost effective way to watch football compared to going to England or Scotland so if we can deliver a good product on our own doorstep at a time that suits the individual, that is going to increase the numbers that come to games and that is what we want to try to do.
“When you think of Saturday now it is very busy for people and has almost become like a normal day of the week with people working.
“There are others who play sport on a Saturday so let’s have our product at a time that suits individuals and they have free leisure time to come to it.
“Also we want to bring more families to Irish League games and the day families do things together is a Sunday. We have to look at all the opportunities out there to take our game forward.”