Opinion

With just one more top-flight fixture to go this season, it’s been time for reflection by the Northern Ireland Football League. This week NIFL announced that as they celebrate five years since their formation collective attendances across the league system have totalled over 1.1million. It is quite an astonishing figure given the narrative that often surrounds the local game.

There seems to be a growing consensus among many that the local leagues are faltering, dying off due to lack of interest. Big Bad Sky Sports have come along and nabbed the interest of every youngster from Belfast to Belleek. However, maybe this is a false narrative – the facts and figures certainly seem to suggest so.

The five year figure promoted by NIFL is said to represent a 21% increase on the five years preceding the change. There could be a multitude of reasons for the growing interest in our leagues and it is something that is fantastic to see.

The Growing Profile of Irish Football

The fortunes of the North and South international teams cannot be ignored over the past number of years, an upturn in results has certainly led to an upturn in interest and attendances on the national stage. It’s not a stretch to suggest this has led fans to consider what else they’re missing out on domestically, far from the bright lights of the English Premiership. Indeed, both national sides have been the subject of great media coverage, especially at the 2016 Euros in France.

A Grander Stage

It’s not just the national teams who have seen the media interest increase, coverage of the local game itself has really diversified. With the death of Ceefax and Ireland’s Saturday Night (oh, the memories!), our options for local coverage were narrowing. Setting aside the match write ups in the paper, your only visual options were to race home in time for NI Final Score or catch the 30 second snippet at the end of the local evening news.

In this regard championing of the game has exploded. The Social Club podcast has remained a valuable opinion tub for local fans, BBC’s online Irish League show and their extended online highlights have been a godsend for many home and abroad. BBC have even taken to live streaming certain matches on their website which is a brilliant new spin for those with even a passing interest. The Sky Sports contract has now brought the local game to an even wider audience. Has it perhaps help to persuade those local armchair fans to shift themselves from behind the screen to on the terrace?

A More Competitive League

This season’s Premiership grandstand finish was one of the most exciting for a number of years, it has been a work in progress for the past number of years. The re-emergence of Belfast’s Other Big Two – Crusaders and Cliftonville – to get themselves amongst the league titles has shown fans that the Irish League is no longer a two horse race with also-rans. Naturally, this was never really the case but for those looking in to see a winner’s list dominated by Glentoran and Linfield it would very much have appeared that way.

It’s not just the Belfast clubs getting their spoke in, an ever strengthening Glenavon has shaken things up and Coleraine’s narrow miss for the title and subsequent Irish Cup win has certainly enlivened football supporters in the North West.

Continuing The Upward Trend?

NIFL clearly have more to do in terms of branding, advertising and pushing the league to that next level but the early signs have been very good. Some of those ‘on the fence’ fans are now seeing the worth in their local clubs with players like Niall McGinn, Gareth McAuley, Stuart Dallas, Liam Boyce and now Paul Smyth having made their moved across the water and making their mark on the international scene.

With an Irish League season ticket costing less than your average annual subscription to your favourite satellite television provider, it is surely a very attractive product for those football fans who haven’t yet made their commitment either way. Here’s to 1 million more!