NIFL Euro woes could open the door to fresh enthusiasm for All-Ireland league
Article by Kieran Burke - @KieranBTS
On a day when the “Boys in Green” get set for their almost annual fixture with the “Danes”, there was some hugely significant news North of the border this morning, as it emerged via BBC NI that the Northern Irish Football League (NIFL) are set to see their number of European qualification slots reduced from four clubs to just three from the 2020/21 season. This comes off the back of a new UEFA decision, which will see leagues outside of the top 50 in the associations co-efficient rankings only allowed two clubs to qualify for it’s Europa League competition.
Given the huge pot of gold on offer to clubs from poorly backed leagues such as the NIFL, European football is the financial dream every club is now chasing in order to compete at a high level and in some cases solely to survive as an entity. Some could argue this financial disaster for clubs in the NIFL has been brought about via their own doing, with many Northern Irish clubs failing to appreciate the importance of European football over the past decade or so. There are numerous examples of both players and managers missing out on key European ties in order to take summer holidays (the NIFL runs off the English football calendar unlike the summer schedule used in the Republic) and as a result, NIFL clubs have failed to make any sort of serious headway on the continent, unlike it’s League of Ireland (LOI) counterparts, who have seen both Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk qualify for the Europa League group stages since the start of the decade, while previous to that there were several near misses, most notably Shelbourne and Drogheda United’s flirtation with the granddaddy of them all, the UEFA Champions League group stages.
Whether or not the NIFL and its clubs have dug their own grave in this regard is an argument for another day. Instead, from a League of Ireland point of view, this breaking news story now throws up the possibility of an All-Ireland league (AIL), or at the very least a fresh discussion on the subject, especially at a time when football governance and structure is a free for all in the Republic.
Many factors have been cited as major barriers (no Brexit puns please…..Although we probably do need to mention that later) to a United Irish league, including summer V Winter football, increased travel expenses, security concerns and of course governance. I could spend an entire weekend talking about such matters but the one that is relevant given today’s news is European qualification and the fear that NIFL clubs would face losing out on a payday bonanza if they were to join up with the LOI clubs, who most pundits perceive to be much stronger than their Northern counterparts.
However, with the NIFL Premiership now only able to offer its twelve clubs two Europa League qualification places, one of which may be awarded to the Irish cup winners, suddenly the increased revenue that would be generated from an AIL starts to look more appealing. With trade union “Unite” recently signing a major three-year sponsorship deal for the newly launched cross border champions cup, it suggests there would indeed be strong interest from businesses and media in backing an AIL, and with discussions always arising in the LOI on starting a centralized pot of Euro prize money to be spread among its members, it could be argued there has never been a better time for all parties to sit down and seriously evaluate this project.
Of course, in saying that we are yet to address the big white elephant in the room and that is a little political storm you may have read about called BREXIT. With expectations ever increasing that a “hard BREXIT” is set to take place, there are major question marks hanging over unobstructed movement across the border. Derry City FC have already raised the alarm bells in some quarters that they could be heavily affected post BREXIT and if that does prove to be the case, an AIL will be the least of the public’s worries in the coming years.
However, as things stand, there can be no excuse for all stakeholders in the beautiful game both North and South to not put their differences and preconceptions aside to sit down and form a solid consensus once and for all if (A) there is a genuine thirst across the Island for an AIL and (b) what that league should look like. Both the FAI and IFA are facing into seriously testing waters on a domestic front in the coming years and ironically almost one-hundred-years on from their bitter divorce, co-operation and a re-union (of sorts) may be the path to salvation for both parties.
Our Twitter account has gone nuts (no we aren’t sponsored by Snickers…..yet) today with followers tweeting in about this very subject and the possibility of an All-Ireland League. Feel free to have your say by tweeting @BetweenStripes or comment on our Facebook page. Alternatively, we still do that thing called email on Betweenthestripes1924@gmail.com