League aims to revive Northern Ireland's club scene

By Lyle JacksonBBC Sport
Cliftonville are the current champions of the Irish Premiership
Cliftonville are the current champions of the Irish Premiership

Forget Brazil and the World Cup, for league football in Northern Ireland the big summer showdown was at a country club in south Belfast.

Tension was in the air as club representatives gathered to vote on changes to the structure of the top divisions in Irish League football.

Those who had drawn up the proposals feared the plans could be scuppered before getting off the ground. A close vote was expected.

Delegates assembling on a wet Wednesday night at Newforge, a leafy well-to-do-area of the city, were being asked to approve the ideas drawn up by the Board of the newly-formed Northern Ireland Football League.

New end-of-season play-offs for a Europa League place was one of the proposals.

There were also plans to strengthen the clubs in Championship One so that the promotion and relegation picture would be straightforward in the future.

At the moment, it all depends on whether the winners of the second flight have the right facilities and infrastructure to take their earned place at the top table.

An end to such muddled confusion, the sort of nonsense that puts off potential sponsors, was the order of the day.

Currently the league structure is 12 Premiership teams, 14 in Championship One and 16 in Championship Two.

After phased changes, over the next two seasons, it will be 12 Premiership, 12 Championship and 12 Premier Intermediate League.

The second-tier clubs will become senior clubs, in a switch from their current intermediate status.

Other ideas involved new branding, working on image, getting more funding through to clubs.

To the man in the street, the fans or casual followers, it mightn't add up to that much.

But for the clubs involved, it was a big deal.

Six of them would lose their place in the NIFL set-up and, historically, club football in Northern Ireland has shied away from change.

True, the Irish League has tinkered with the number of clubs in the top division several times - eight, 10, 12, 16 - but in the grand scheme of things little had changed over the years.

There was a sense that something had to be done to revive the domestic set-up in Northern Ireland football. Something more than a catchy advertising slogan.

The challenge was to get the clubs to buy into it.

In the past, self-interest had stifled any revolution. Clubs would vote for what was best for them, ignoring any bigger picture.

Chairman Adrian Teer pleaded with the clubs to back the plans.

"This is important for the future of football in Northern Ireland," he said.

"We need to get the message out there, that the football family knows what is needed and can agree on it, that there is no in-fighting.

"We are being watched by Government, media and sponsors. Are we credible and open to new ideas, or is it going to be the same old thing?

"We have to show a united front, particularly when it comes to funding."

In the end Teer, MD Andrew Johnston, and the rest of the NIFL board saw the proposals sail through. The 32-5 verdict comfortably securing the required two-thirds in favour.

Chairman Teer said those who had voted in favour had 'taken their club hats off' and put the local game first.

The slogan 'Our football, our future' had won the day.

NIFL Managing Director Andrew Johnston: "Tonight was a very important occasion for football in Northern Ireland.

"It has been said now for a couple of years that the local game needed an fresh injection of ideas.

"Tonight is the accumulation of a lot of hard work and we have to thank Uefa for the support they have given us."

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