The League of Ireland Season is just appearing on the horizon, excitement and anticipation is building from Cork to Derry. But beyond this excitement, there is a more divisive issue ringing around the North and South of the country which could change the face of football on the island forever. Kerry Businessman, Kieran Lucid has proposed the idea of an All-Island League, where teams from the Danske Bank Premiership (Northern Ireland Football League) and the SSE Airtricity League of Ireland would compete against eachother. This idea has been backed by many, but there have been several set backs to date in the campaign.
Despite the emotion and special atmosphere experienced at local clubs around the country, football leagues in Ireland have always played second fiddle to the English Premier League and Scottish Premiership. Fans across the island have travelled to England in their thousands over the years to follow big clubs, while having never experienced a match at their local club. The proposed joining of the two Irish Leagues could potentially draw bigger crowds every week. New teams mean new challenges, and surely playing different opposition of varying standards would benefit every team involved. A more competitive league across 32 counties would certainly encourage more people to go out and support their local team.
If demand and attendances for Irish clubs were to grow, the possibility of a television deal would be viable. The island of Ireland has a population of approximately 6.6 million. Scotland has a population of roughly 5.4 million people, and their domestic league is very successful, in terms of finance and European Competitions. The Champions of Scotland last season, Celtic FC received £3,350,000 for winning the SPL. This is a far cry from the money received by Dundalk for winning the League of Ireland last year which was said to have been around €120,000. As with football all over the world, finance is key to the continued success of a club. It has been reported that prize money in an All-Island League could see the winners receive €800,000. This would be a massive plus for clubs, and an added initiative to compete at the top level.
European Football is the pinnacle of competition for Irish Clubs. Nothing compares to the buzz around the club and the community in the lead up to a European Game. Personally, I feel that European Football would have a huge role to play in this new league format. European nights would draw massive crowds in every part of the country and would encourage more people to get involved with their club. The more successful the clubs in Europe, the bigger financial reward enjoyed by the club and the league as a whole. If the two leagues were to merge into a competitive and intriguing league, standards would surely rise, making Irish Clubs more competitive in Europe, and equally appealing to players from overseas.
As with every proposal, the All-Island League motion has been met with some disapproval. Irish Football Association Chief Executive, Patrick Nelson has declared his opposition to the idea. In a statement released by the IFA, they announced “The IFA has confirmed that it will not sanction any of its member clubs to take part in an all-island (All-Ireland) Football League as proposed by Irish businessman, Kieran Lucid”. They also branded Lucid’s proposals as “highly speculative and lack specificity or guarantees”. Financial speculation is an uncertainty for clubs when there are very few examples of cross border leagues succeeding. The success of the league relies on more people coming out to support their teams, and more valuable sponsorship deals.
Some backlash from supporters included the argument of travel. A new league format would see increased travel distances for clubs. Fans have argued that travelling the length of the country would be too much for teams and fans alike. For example, if Cork City FC were to travel to Coleraine FC in Co. Derry, it would include a round trip of almost 10 ½ hours. Cork and Waterford, as well as the Northern teams would feel this strain the most. Although this is a suggested problem with the new format, the issue could be overcome with increased travel expenses and correct preparation. It could also be tackled by teams meeting half-way in a neutral venue.
An All-Island League is certainly an exciting prospect and could change Irish Football for the better over the coming years. There is more investigation and research to be done, but with a few tweaks and alterations, there is no reason why the Irish Football Leagues can’t earn the same respect as some of their oversees counterparts. There are doubts and many questions hanging over the proposal as speculation is no guarantee, but it is surely worth the gamble to revive the beautiful game on this beautiful island.