Talk of an all-Ireland soccer league reared its head again this autumn, but the idea seems to be dead in the water after briefly being on the agenda.
Personally I’m disappointed. I’d love to see the leagues in the Republic and Northern Ireland join forces and build a stronger pyramid on the island than the two separate pyramids could ever flex their individual muscle to be.
There remains too much in the way, too many stumbling blocks. Sectarian issues for one, which is understandable given the recent history of our two communities. I think that could be overcome, given that we achieved a political Peace Process, but evidently there are too many reservations in the footballing community.
Money is another factor. The top clubs in both leagues regularly get through to Europe, where there is bigger cash on offer for getting through a round or two than for winning major domestic honours. Combine the leagues and the chances of keeping your hands on a slice of this pie diminish. Then there is the power and prestige administrators and blazers in the separate organisations enjoy. They won’t want to give that up. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
I’ve always been a fan of Northern Ireland domestic football, ever since I was a child and their results would come on the BBC straight after the English ones. Linfield, Glentoran, Portadown, Cliftonvilleand Crusaders. They were teams I wanted to see. Their league was a standard I wanted to compare with the world of Shelbourne, Bohemians, Bray Wanderers, Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk, Derry City and Cork City.
A phrase I’m fond of is ‘together we are stronger’. It would be a brave move to combine the leagues, but you achieve nothing unless you are brave. Currently the two senior divisions [SSE Airtricity Premier and First Divisions] here have 20 teams in total; up north the two senior divisions [NIFL Premiership and Championship] have 24 teams in total. There is the basis there to have three national senior divisions of 14 teams each, with a regionalised level below comprising the top divisions of what is now the Leinster Senior League, Munster Senior League and NIFL Premier Intermediate League. These regional leagues would promote directly into the third tier.
Obviously we’d have to decide whether we were going to run with a summer soccer league or a winter one. A name would have to be decided on too. I’ll offer up the Hibernia League as a suggestion – the three divisions could be Hibernia League 1, 2 and 3. If we did make the brave move we could construct a national pyramid and if it was marketed and televised right it could attract sufficient crowds and sponsors to make it pay for itself.
As a fan of League of Ireland I have to say that one of the perennial disappointments is the small range of grounds you get to travel to. Imagine if a whole new world opened up, where you could be travelling to clubs you have never been to before. It would be the same for fans in Northern Ireland. Bray Wanderers away to Harland & Wolff Welders in Tillysburn Park in a Hibernia League 3 away fixture might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it would be manna from heaven for me. Maybe one day it will happen!