Linfield and Glentoran encouraged by initial All-Island League meeting in Dundalk
Representatives of Linfield and Glentoran have indicated they were encouraged by talks in Dundalk last night about the proposed all-island league.
But they have stressed that they will be guided by feedback from their own stakeholders before taking a definitive stance on the idea, with Linfield chairman Roy McGivern of the view that a decision will need to be made early in 2020 about whether to proceed with plans.
Clubs from both sides of the border were invited to a meeting in the Crowne Plaza Hotel which was hosted by Kieran Lucid, the Kerry born tech entrepreneur that is driving an idea which would change the face of football on the island.
36 clubs - 20 from the League of Ireland and 16 from the Irish League - were given the opportunity to attend the gathering and Lucid said afterwards that the 'vast majority' had showed up. It's understood that Limerick, Cobh Ramblers, Dungannon Swifts and Institute were not able to take up the invitation.
A key speaker at the meeting was Pieter Nieuwenhuis, a director and founder of Dutch company Hypercube. They have extensive experience in designing league competitions for UEFA and around Europe, most notably in the Danish Superleague, and have partnered with Lucid's working group on this project.
Oliver Weingarten, a legal and commercial expert who has worked with the Premier League, also addressed the room. Former English FA General Secretary Alex Horne, another experienced administrator that has offered his input to exploratory talks, made a contribution by video link.
There was no vote of any description taken at the meeting, with delegates asked to advance things further down the road by providing information to Hypercube about their respective clubs under a range of headings that will allow the Dutch data experts to add weight to Lucid's broad proposal between now and the end of December.
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Ultimately, the main deal breaker for clubs on both sides of the border is likely to be the commercial package with Lucid confident he can generate revenues far in excess of what is currently available to members of the League of Ireland and Irish League.
However, there is a 'chicken and egg' aspect to the process as firm offers from TV companies and sponsors will not materialise until there is certainty that clubs have bought into the process and are committed to it.
This has led to scepticism and Cliftonville chairman Gerard Lawlor - who was not present in Dundalk - said earlier this week that there was no 'meat on the bones' of current proposals, which he described as unrealistic. Cliftonville, a club with a predominantly Catholic fanbase, were represented at the meeting and retain concerns about what they've heard. Or what they haven't heard, to be more precise.
But the delegates from their Belfast rivals Linfield and Glentoran, two clubs that hail from staunchly Protestant areas, appear to be satisfied with the outline of plans to date, while stressing there are major obstacles that have to be crossed.
"The level of interest, I would suggest, for most people in the room would have been higher coming out of the meeting than it would have been going into it," said Glentoran director Graham Jenkins.
"The working group was really impressive. You can't walk away from the process because there is something behind it that's really impressive but, at this stage, there's no detail to take it further.
"It's just an expression of interest, and Glentoran Football Club will look at it and we will be part of the process going forward but it's way too early to say it can go somewhere because there are lots of local issues that we have to take care of that haven't really been addressed in terms of our local community. That's in terms of Brexit, and all of the issues that come from that.
"We will have to be very careful and talk to our fans, and all of our stakeholders, and then take it to the next stage.
"We're an open book. We would be interested in looking at an All-Ireland league. Interestingly we participated in the Setanta Cup for nine years and it failed. We were one of the clubs that took it seriously, we had lots of fans that travelled all over Ireland, to Cork and to Sligo, and it wasn't reciprocated by a lot of the southern based clubs
"We've to look at it all and decide. It would be a decision to come out of our comfort zone and to go into something that could be a lot bigger."
Linfield chairman McGivern spoke in similar terms.
"The guys involved have put in a lot of work, a lot of analysis and research," he said.
"We will take it back to our club and have a discussion but Linfield, as the leading club in the north, has to take an interest in this and see where it takes us.
"There will be a decision to make early next year, I would imagine, as clubs will have to decide if they are for this or if they are not.
"There's more information needed. We can't give any commitment at this stage but we are going to stay part of the conversation and then in a couple of months time, our club will have to make a decision. It's a very interesting proposal and it's one I certainly want to stay involved in for now anyway."
The League of Ireland clubs present were encouraged by the presentations, but there is an awareness of the political sensitivities that have to be taken into consideration in dealing with their northern counterparts. Derry City rep Denis Bradley, a former vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and an influential mediator during the Troubles, urged the room to be mindful of the complications presented by the Brexit impasse.
Southern clubs remain engaged in their own process with the FAI about the restructuring of the League of Ireland and that will continue to run in tandem with the exploratory discussions about the all-island plan.
"We're riding both horses at the minute," said a club source, reflecting a general view that it would foolish to put all the eggs in the one basket when so much is uncertain.
But the common sentiment amongst the League of Ireland contingent after the meeting ended was that they liked what they heard, and want to see where this concept can go.
Lucid told the meeting there have been constructive talks with government figures about the project; peace and reconciliation funds are another part of his financial plan.
He made a brief statement after the meeting, asserting that there is no pressure on clubs to make a quick decision - although it's believed that he is still working towards a target of a 2021 kickoff. There are supporters of the idea who feel that might be too ambitious.
"We made it very clear to the clubs that we will not be asking them to take a leap of faith, nor make significant decisions immediately," said Lucid.
"However, we have asked them to engage in the process, and join us on the journey as we seek to translate the clear goodwill for the All-Island League concept into a tangible, well-funded and unique model that will the reinvigorate the all-island club game."