Belfast Telegraph

Pat Fenlon believes a summer switch will boost Euro outlook for NI clubs

New direction: Pat Fenlon has urged Irish League clubs to consider a change to a summer fixture calendar
New direction: Pat Fenlon has urged Irish League clubs to consider a change to a summer fixture calendar

By Graham Luney

Linfield general manager Pat Fenlon says Irish League clubs should consider a calendar switch in the future to bolster European performances and generate greater income.

The Irish League is in real danger of losing a Europa League place and the £200,000 that comes with it due to a slide down the Uefa Co-efficient list.

Northern Ireland is currently 52nd out of 55 nations and that has concentrated minds within the Irish FA and Northern Ireland Football League as they search for a fresh approach.

Debate is raging within clubs as NIFL prepare to supply them with a consultation document, offering recommendations for change.

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill has held a meeting with clubs, outlining his belief that a switch to a more summer season would help Irish League clubs in Europe.

While there appears to be insufficient support for a move to a season such as the League of Ireland, which runs from February to October, there seems to be a greater willingness to accept a domestic campaign from May to February. That would retain the popular festive fixtures and help our clubs be more competitive on the European stage.

NIFL managing director Andrew Johnston said this month: "If the clubs go for it, we could have a change in season in two years' time, by May 2021, but there's a lot of work to be done around that transition."

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Crusaders have embraced a more full-time culture this season, with Linfield likely to adopt a similar approach, but any significant change to the timing of the season would require the backing of most of the top flight clubs.

League of Ireland clubs embraced a summer league in 2003 and Fenlon, who began his managerial career with Shelbourne in 2002, says the Irish League needs to look at the bigger picture.

"I think when you go back to the Uefa co-efficient it's obviously something that needs to be addressed," said the 50-year-old former Linfield hero, who also played for St Patrick's Athletic, Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne.

"The southern teams have done better in Europe through the change of season and going full-time. I don't think a change of season alone is the answer but we have to look at the European qualification picture as we don't want to lose a European place.

"People want to talk about it. I don't know if there's a real desire to change but it should be discussed. Change can be tough but it's important we have conversations about making the league better.

"It's not about one club, it's about how we make the league stronger, and from that perspective it's important all the clubs should have these discussions.

"The big games around Christmas are very important, but clubs also know there is a danger of us losing a European place.

"That's the main criteria. It's only right that people have their say and we make a decision that is the interests of the whole league. No-one wants to force anything on anyone."

The former Hibernian boss is working on a strategic plan for the club in the next five years and a more full-time model may emerge.

"The full-time option is to be looked at," added Fenlon, who won a league championship and two Irish Cups with Linfield.

"I don't think it's a quick fix. You can't jump into it and it's something that needs to be a right fit for the club and players on a long term basis.

"That will be part of a strategic plan for the club in the next five years, we won't be jumping into that straight away. The same option will not suit every club.

"It is something that we aspire to, having a full-time football team, but it's got to suit Linfield."

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