On Friday April 27, 2007 it was announced that for the first time, the Irish FA had secured a deal with broadcasting giants Sky Sports.
The contract, which would bring somewhere in the region of £10m into Northern Irish football, came at a time when Lawrie Sanchez’s David Healy-inspired international troops were on a massive high and suddenly the IFA were ‘wanted’ by companies outside of this wee country.
However, beyond the international involvement that Sky were taking on, someone inside the game’s local governing body pulled off a masterstroke — credit where it’s due — as they negotiated the live screening of, at least, five Irish League matches a season for the next four years.
And from the very first game — an enthralling 2-2 draw between Cliftonville and Linfield at Solitude — which unsurprisingly yielded much publicity for the company here and indeed the league on a much wider scale, Sky can have few complaints.
In fact they don’t have any.
Ratings have apparently been impressive, though as is their right they’ll never tell you just how many tune in, the games for the most part have been exciting, dramatic and well worth watching — in short, from their point of view it’s been ultimately worthwhile.
Of course, some may suggest that Sky, in a sense, owed local football.
There is no doubt that the wall-to-wall coverage given to the English Premier League over the past 18 years has seen an entire generation of local football fans lost to the glitz and glamour of the big guns across the water.
As a result, attendances have steadily gone down and the Irish League is a figure of ridicule to those here who can see no further than what’s going on at Old Trafford or Anfield etc.
Sky’s argument, rightly, is that they were only giving the people — in all corners of the UK — what they want and at least they are now doing their bit to promote the completely under-rated product we have here on our doorsteps.
Nevertheless, those involved in the Carling Premiership can see nothing but positives emanating from Sky Sports hitching up at Northern Ireland’s football grounds.
Geoff Wilson, Irish FA’s Head of Marketing and Communications said: “The impact that Sky Sports coverage has had on the Carling Premiership has been absolutely fantastic.
“We have seen higher attendances at these games and on a club level, being shown live across the UK and beyond provides the perfect platform to promote themselves and the town they are from.
“This has also helped clubs to sell advertising space and increase vital revenue coming into the club and the local game.”
Cliftonville have arguably benefited most from the link-up.
Solitude, with its compact new facilities, provides the perfect platform for what Sky Sports want to put across and each game that has taken place there has been full of goals, action and incident.
Chairman Gerard Lawlor agrees with Geoff Wilson, that attendances are higher and income has risen, but there are other aspects.
“Aside from bringing in sponsors, which has been a little easier, knowing that there is a chance we could be on Sky we have been able to put across the brand of Cliftonville Football Club to people we may never have been able to reach.
“We are able to promote ourselves and what we are about in a much bigger scale and we would never have been able to do that without Sky’s involvement.”
Newry City boss Gerry Flynn, whose side were involved in the latest game on Monday night, beating Portadown 4-2 in another decent game, added: “The professionalism they show is what I find most impressive.
“The games are treated like any in the Premier League in England and hopefully people recognise that and we can continue to benefit from the partnership.”
Adam Chenery is a producer at Sky Sports and he says the Carling Premiership has plenty to offer, admitting that when he returns to London after a game here, people
want to talk about what they have seen — not least the unique passion that is shown by the players.
“I only have anecdotal evidence to back it up but from what I have heard it is hugely popular,” he said.
“People are obviously watching it and want to know more, possibly because it does offer a side of football that is rarely seen now.
“You can’t compare it to the Premier League, it’s totally different, but that’s what makes people tune in. You have guys there, a lot of them have been working in the day and go out and give their all, showing a kind of passion that fans can really relate to.
“You can tell how much it means for them to be playing for their club, whether it be Glentoran or Linfield or Newry City.
“And then, there’s the tackling!
“A lot is made of the challenges but no one means to be patronising, I think it’s just that at the top end, a good old fashioned tackle seems to be leaving the game.
“It’s been more than a box-ticking exercise on our part. We treat the Carling Premiership as we do any league.
“There is a good product there and it will be helped by the fact that the games are at a slot which Sky Sports is very proud of.
“Monday Night football is a big deal and people will tune in on a weekly basis looking for a game and that means that when the Carling Premiership is on, the games will attract that kind of fan.”