Irish businessman Kieran Lucid says he believes a new 'split-season' format with a cross-border dimension could revive football in the north and south.
An All-Island League plan has met with opposition from the Irish FA and some Irish League clubs. However, Lucid insists other options are on the table and he maintains a cross-border tournament will help revitalise the game across the island.
The All-Island League Advocacy Group are holding a series of 'stakeholder summits' to assess the viability of and appetite for cross-border competition and two events are going ahead at the Belfast Waterfront on Tuesday - a players' and coaches' summit at 6pm and fans' summit at 7.30pm.
Hypercube, a Dutch independent business innovation consultancy, who have helped design competitions for leagues in Europe, are facilitating the discussions.
Ambitious plans to bring the Irish League and League of Ireland together in an historic new structure appeared to be kicked into touch when the Irish FA said in October they couldn't support the initiative.
However, they did add: "We greatly value our association and club links with the Football Association of Ireland and are happy to both take part in, and enhance, cross-border cup competitions at all levels.
"We already have the brand new Unite the Union Champions Cup, played for between the champions of the Irish League and League of Ireland, the Presidents' Cup for Junior sides in both countries, and a proposed new intermediate level competition."
Stakeholders will now be asked to look at three formats - a Setanta Cup-style tournament existing as well as the domestic competitions; a split-season in which for one half of the year the domestic leagues go ahead and European places are settled before an All-Island League takes place; and thirdly, an All-Island League.
Kerry entrepreneur Lucid said: "The advisory group looked at a Danish-style All-Island League but Hypercube advised us to broaden the discussions and explore other formats.
"An All-Island League is not the goal of the project. The goal of the project is to improve the fortunes and finances of clubs and the game here, to improve the attendances and see more big European nights."
He added: “We are trying to see what options the fans are open to.”
The original plan centred around a 14-team top tier and two 10-team regionalised leagues, starting in 2021.
While some supporters and clubs welcomed the ambitious proposal, genuine fears surfaced regarding a loss of European places, the gulf in class between the two leagues and the long-term sustainability of the project.
The Irish FA made clear their opposition to an All-Island League, but Lucid hopes the Association will see the benefits of different formats.
“We had the meeting with the clubs in Dundalk in October but the Irish FA came out against our idea of a 14-team Danish-style Premiership,” he added.
“Now we have broadened the discussion and will reach out to the Irish FA in a different way.
“There is an attachment to the Irish League and no appetite to lose it or dismantle it and you have to listen to that.
“Our plan will be to convince the Irish FA of the merits of some form of cross-border competition. They did say they remained open to that and support the Unite the Union Cup, so perhaps a split-season may be more acceptable to them.
“The media, fans, players, coaches, broadcasters, sponsors and the governments will be consulted over the three meetings in Belfast, Dublin and Dundalk.
“At the moment the clubs are surviving but we want them to thrive as well as survive.
“Any fan who wants to see big crowds and big European nights must ask themselves what would you do differently?
“Our player connection with the big clubs in England is falling away and it’s time we discussed our player pathways.
“This discussion is not about countries, it’s about towns and cities. Swansea or Cardiff are no less Welsh for playing in an English league. Something needs to give if you want big games and I feel cross-border competition along with investment in facilities is the answer.
“We want to hear the fans’ voices and hopefully they will come along on Tuesday and join the discussions.”
There is the potential for media and sponsors to make any new proposal a lucrative one, with Lucid maintaining that one broadcaster was willing to invest more than €1m a year into the All-Island League. “If you look in Denmark they have a television deal of about €54m and it will go up to €60m,” he added.
“The prize money for winning the Premiership in Northern Ireland does not compare to that, or even to the bottom tier of the game in Scotland. The desired outcome is to redirect some of the interest in the game in Scotland and England back to here. We want to get people excited about fresh ideas.
“I would argue that a better league would raise standards and generate bigger crowds.”
The inaugural Unite the Union Champions Cup last year failed to advance the argument for an All-Island League.
The one-sided nature of the second leg — Dundalk beat Linfield 6-0 to triumph 7-1 on aggregate — highlighted a gulf in class between the sides and sectarian chanting from some ‘supporters’, coupled with the unpopular travel and security arrangements for travelling Linfield fans, left many observers deflated.