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Why Irish League clubs shouldn't rush into All-Island League, explains Crusaders boss Baxter


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Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter

Inpho/Stephen Hamilton

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter has cautioned against clubs jumping into an All-Island League while expressing fears Danske Bank Premiership sides would struggle to compete with their richer League of Ireland rivals.

The Irish Football Association may have firmly opposed businessman Kieran Lucid's radical proposal but discussions aimed at resurrecting cross-border action are ongoing.

An All-Island League Advocacy Group is consulting stakeholders and has recruited Dutch consultancy firm Hypercube to research the appetite for either an All-Island League or knockout competition similar to the old Setanta Cup which ran from 2005 to 2014.

Linfield and Crusaders were the only Irish League clubs to grasp the prize, with Stephen Baxter's men tasting success in 2012 when Derry City lost a penalty shoot-out at The Oval. A split-season is being considered, which would see teams play home and away in their current leagues before merging for the latter half of the campaign.

There is no demand for more excitement in Northern Ireland's premier division, with six points separating five title chasers, and Crues chief Baxter is wary of seeing remarkable progress in the domestic game going to waste.

"My concern would be the product in Northern Ireland has been lifted very well in the last few years and it's now very competitive," said Baxter. "We are seeing bigger crowds and we have really lifted our game. If you are going to join another league, and I've been working with players from those leagues, they are so far out of our price bracket it's scary.

"If the Irish League wants to enter that race, we could find ourselves becoming the poor relation of it.

"I would add a little bit of caution as to whether we can compete financially."

Baxter, who has steered the north Belfast side to three Premiership titles and two Irish Cups, added: “Also, will the fans be travelling the length and breadth of the country for midweek games?

“There’s a lot of thinking to be done around that and I wouldn’t make decisions of that magnitude quickly.

“You would need to see everything on the table, financially and otherwise.

“Don’t get sucked into what may or may not be on the table and then a year later we are left holding the baby saying, ‘Look at the wonderful product we left behind and have to rebuild it all’.”

At a time when Irish League clubs are fighting for just three European places this year, there are genuine fears continental action would be an even more distant dream for northern sides up against stronger opposition in the south.

Perhaps a knockout tournament is the more realistic proposal, however fans’ appetite for the Setanta Cup (lifted by Crusaders ace Paul Leeman in 2012) faded amid disagreements over fixture scheduling and Irish League teams suffering significant losses.

The IFA and FAI introduced the Unite the Union Champions Cup this season but on and off the pitch it failed to sparkle, with sectarian singing striking a sour note and Linfield suffering a heavy 7-1 aggregate defeat to Dundalk. Linfield supporters were also unhappy with the travelling arrangements due to security concerns.

Baxter is open to any discussion regarding how our game can improve but any proposal must come with strong guarantees.

“A long conversation is needed on this one,” he added.

“When we won the Setanta Cup it was an amazing experience for us as a football club. I was on cloud nine when we won it but it was a one-off four or five-game tournament.

“An All-Island League is a very different proposition with travelling and hotel accommodation.

“While we have an amazing product, so at the moment I would exercise caution over all of this. There may be a time when we can dip our toe into the water and perhaps resurrect a cup competition. I’m always for bettering things but take your time with it.

“Dundalk were in Spain for a week, it’s all about sustainability and what money is available.

“If we say let’s do it, can the Irish League teams compete in it?

“There’s a lot to think about, it’s a huge discussion and a lot of consultation is needed. This isn’t about one or two individuals, it would affect a lot of clubs and supporters. Let’s see the surveys and analysis and any guarantees.

“Ask the fans, do they want to travel up and down to Cork?”

One major step forward for the Danske Bank Premiership is the willingness of clubs, including Crusaders, to embrace a more full-time environment.

That new culture is raising performance levels and now Glentoran have come to the party in a big way thanks to Ali Pour’s takeover.

The Glens are reaping quick-fire rewards as they sit top of the table, while the £60,000 bids for Cliftonville frontman Joe Gormley and Ballymena United striker Adam Lecky raised eyebrows.

“It’s always been a competitive transfer market but the numbers have changed,” added Baxter, whose club had to dig out £50,000 to sign Jamie McGonigle from Coleraine.

“Back in the day I was sold for £15,000 and then £18,000. It’s just how it works. You have to analyse what you can afford.

“There is a responsibility to it as well. When you are paying out that kind of money you need to be sure the players can fit in and deliver for you. If you are spending big it has to be a player you are convinced can do the job.

“The temptation is to buy someone to win you something, and that needs to be worked out.

“I didn’t think I would see a lot of bids happening in the Irish League but it is happening that way.

“I’m not entirely sure where that money will come from, from everybody, but we will see what happens.”

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