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Gareth McAuley

It's now time to consider a fully pro Irish League, summer football and IFA in charge of contracts

Gareth McAuley


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Glentoran’s Gavin Peers with Cliftonville’s Liam Bagnall. Credit: INPHO/Jonathan Porter

Glentoran’s Gavin Peers with Cliftonville’s Liam Bagnall. Credit: INPHO/Jonathan Porter

©INPHO/Jonathan Porter

Glentoran’s Gavin Peers with Cliftonville’s Liam Bagnall. Credit: INPHO/Jonathan Porter

With the continued uncertainty around when football will return, now is the time to press the reset button on Irish League football.

I'm sure the majority of players are itching to get back playing.

Thankfully, it's not their decision as, despite hopefully being over the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, the spread of the disease is simply too great.

Realistically, football in Northern Ireland may not return for a long time.

In fact, the only League in the UK I can see returning in the foreseeable future is the multi-billion pound Premier League.

That is not scaremongering, it's an honest opinion having ascertained facts and plans on the prospect of football returning.

We need to look to the long-term goal, rather than a short-term fix.

I can't even see the Championship in England playing out the season and there is a great deal of money involved in that League.

I know that the Bundesliga in Germany is scheduled to restart this Saturday behind closed doors, but already 10 players have tested positive for Covid-19 and the games haven't even started.

The Premier League has been involved in exhaustive discussions about 'Project Restart', yet a solution has not been found. This despite the fact the Premier League and its clubs have all the resources and importantly money to quarantine and test players, coaches, officials and all the other necessary people.

While all clubs and players want to see the season finished, it's time to accept the inevitable and start preparing now for next season. Only a vaccine will save the campaign

Even if clubs in the Danske Bank Premiership could afford to play behind closed doors for the final seven games of the season before the UEFA deadline of July 31, and I would be surprised if they could financially, then a huge amount of money is still needed to make sure the games could be put on in a Covid-19 safe environment.

The players would need to be tested regularly or quarantined and that is not going to happen in the Danske Bank Premiership.

The majority of players are part-time, so they work during the day. It wouldn't be feasible for them to self-isolate for two days following a test prior to a game.

Then you have all the restrictions on both sides of the border. Will players who come from the Republic even be allowed to cross to play in Northern Ireland?

While all clubs and players want to see the season finished, it's time to accept the inevitable and start preparing now for next season. Only a vaccine will save the campaign.

With time available, football chiefs here now have to ask themselves, 'How can we make our product better?'

As footballers, we always aspire to improve, and administrators from the IFA, NIFL and the respective clubs should not be content with the current set-up. There are always improvements able to be made.

You may have incredible talent, but you can't give your best if you are holding down a job during the week and also training and playing football

The proposed All-Ireland League is not under serious consideration at the minute due to the fact the Danske Bank Premiership is not a fully professional player League.

Surely, though, that has to be the goal - not joining the All-Ireland League, but having a division full of professional players.

You may have incredible talent, but you can't give your best if you are holding down a job during the week and also training and playing football. When I think back to my Irish League days, all I remember is tiredness.

For the Danske Bank Premiership to be a truly great product and to act as a constant stepping stone to the English and Scottish game, provided there is a pathway following Covid-19, then clubs need to put forward business plans for their thoughts on going fully professional.

Some clubs, with big-money investment, have already gone down that route but this lockdown is an opportunity for all clubs to reassess.

Of course, many will argue they are working hard just to survive during this period of financial uncertainty. I sympathise, but the bigger picture needs to be explored.

We finally need answers on summer football, wage caps and how clubs can make the most of transferring players across the water.

Football is changing. It will never be the same again when we return and even though it may sound bizarre, we need to start thinking outside of the box for the League to survive and then grow stronger

Do we also look at the Irish FA getting more involved with NIFL and the introduction of a central contract system?

It may seem far-fetched that players would belong to a network run by the IFA and be sub-contracted out to the clubs and there would be swaps and trades instead of transfers, but I believe every avenue should be explored. Of course, if a club in England or Scotland comes in for a player, then a transfer is involved and it would go into the pot to improve the game.

Clubs would pay a membership fee to the IFA from revenue received and they would pay players' wages.

I looked into the MLS model in the United States and hoped something similar could run here but obviously those clubs are franchises of the League, so that would never work.

However, football is changing. It will never be the same again when we return and even though it may sound bizarre, we need to start thinking outside of the box for the League to survive and then grow stronger.

These are going to be uncomfortable times if revenue is limited due to a lack of sponsorship, fans through the turnstiles, TV funding and social clubs closed. Things we would never have considered before may suddenly be brought to the fore. Now is the time to press that reset button.

Belfast Telegraph