Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) Chief Executive Gerard Lawlor believes Irish League clubs are “the forgotten children of the Northern Ireland football family”.
And the former Cliftonville Chairman declares he will take up the cudgels on behalf of all 42 clubs within NIFL as he looks ahead to his first full season in his new role.
Lawlor took on the position of Chief Executive nine months ago and, while accepting mistakes have been made, professes himself “happy with progress made to date”.
His involvement in the game has taken him from Cliftonville supporters buses to the Executive Board of the Irish Football Association to his current role at the head of NIFL.
Outside of football, the man from Carrick Hill started out as a chef in the hospitality business before taking up a senior position within Belfast’s Grand Opera House, where he learned the value of marketing.
Now, nine months into his new gig, Lawlor is still asking himself if the job was bigger than even he anticipated.
“I’m still working that out in my head”, muses the NIFL supremo.
“I haven’t fully got to grips with what the job entails, but I will say I am happy with progress so far.
“I underestimated the time and commitment this job requires. Previously I was involved with Cliftonville and the Irish FA and I spent a lot of time outside work at meetings.
“I thought if I took the job at NIFL, it would give me more time with my family but it hasn’t always worked out that way.
“It’s a 12-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week job because the challenges in football are so varied, but I’m absolutely loving it.
“One thing I am very grateful for is the support I have received from all the clubs, who would have seen me very much as a Cliftonville man before I started working for NIFL.
“The clubs have bought into what NIFL is trying to do because they know we care about their development, each and every one of them.
“I feel our clubs are the forgotten children of the Northern Ireland football family and I will always fight that, I will fight for our clubs to get the recognition and respect they deserve.
“I won’t shirk my responsibilities or duck controversy, the Irish FA is our governing body but I do not feel we are given our rightful place in football here in Northern Ireland.
“NIFL and the IFA work well together, there are very capable people in the association and I have a good working relationship with the President (Conrad Kirkwood) and the Chief Executive (Patrick Nelson).
“That said, I still feel NIFL clubs are not given their place or the respect they deserve for the contribution they make to football here.”
There has long been a belief that the Irish FA does not care about senior football as much as other strands of the game in the province, and matters came to a head last year.
Lawlor found himself on a collision course with the aforementioned Kirkwood and Nelson after taking on the top job in NIFL.
He was asked to step down from the IFA Executive Board, with IFA chiefs citing a conflict of interest due to his NIFL involvement.
Lawlor himself initially wanted to remain on the Board to bolster representation of senior clubs but the IFA insisted the dual roles were incompatible and badgered him to step down.
His position was subsequently filled by junior representative and close associate of Kirkwood’s Michael Mezza.
Lawlor admits it was a difficult time for him but insists he has moved on and is looking at the bigger picture in the game.
“I don’t think I was shown respect by the IFA but I don’t hold grudges”, Lawlor tells Sunday Life Sport.
“Yes, it hurt at the time, we all have egos to some degree but it’s in the past now, we learn lessons and we move on.
“I’ve had some horrible experiences in football and some great experiences. I’ve made mistakes but a mistake is only a mistake if you learn nothing from it.
“When I was at Cliftonville, I had some high profile off-field issues to deal with and, even now at NIFL, I have had some ding-dongs with clubs and you are always learning in life.
“I had the club Chairman’s perspective when I was at Cliftonville and that helps me in the office, because I can see matters from both sides now.
“My wife Roisin and my son Gerard both currently work at Solitude so I get stick at home if NIFL does something they don’t agree with!
“But if I am grateful to clubs for their support in my new role, it is nothing to my gratitude to Roisin for the support she has shown me throughout my time in football.”