The phrase the ‘winds of change’ are generally used to highlight the heralding of great societal, political or technological change looming on the horizon. You may remember the Scorpions singing about it in 1991 though I felt they were a little tardy to the party as the Berlin Wall had fallen two years previously. On reflection, I’m being a bit pedantic as the fall of Communism across Europe took several years. Still, it is a bit of a jump from Gorky Park to Windsor Park where the NIFL is administered but as many of you are aware, there is true and proper barometric pressure whipping up around Northern Irish football.
And those tradewinds are good, it should be said. Have we always been able to say that? Between the Troubles, poor image and funding, an insular outlook, cheap cross- channel travel and live Premiership games the Irish League has had plenty to deal with over several decades. What doesn’t kill you and all that? However, it can take one set of skills to deal with adversity and another to deal with success. But we trust that NIFL are aware of all this and none of it is a surprise to them as it no doubt it fits in with their business plan.
Many of you will be aware of media chatter about calendar change to the league and then within days, we hear of live BBCNI Irish League football. Hurricane Andrew perhaps with a tip of the hat to NIFL’s top man? In some ways, none of this should be a surprise. Everywhere you look in Irish football all you hear is positivity and good news via plenty of platforms. The LOI has a fairly lively professional league and the Republic’s team compared to forty odd years ago has plenty of profile and manages its share of appearances in tournaments.
Up here, the league is highly competitive with improved grounds, crowds and sounds and the international side continues to flourish. Young players moving to England now do so having played men’s football rather than the more artificial Academy strain and only fitness and strength are the more marked issues. Whilst still having the odd unfortunate issue the game here is run on much better lines by clubs and administrators. European money floods the game and at the risk of dislocation pushes standards up nevertheless. Promotion and relegation spread the game geographically and creates a linear hierarchy. The correct amount of clubs play more or less the right amount of settled and traditional competitions and long gone are the days of the Reserve League being your only other option. Further down the game youth football covers most green spaces on a Saturday morning and women’s football thrives.
Against this backdrop Crusaders and Larne flirt with full – time activity so when broadcasting corporations start snooping and calendar changes are mooted, it is all part and parcel as the phrase goes. Natural progression is generally inexorable and it is usually pointless fighting against it. If it is natural it has more chance of fruition. For example look at the forced marketing of football in seventies’ USA. Throwing in the likes of Best, Pele and Marsh at the tail end of their careers in a land where the TV networks or supporters weren’t quite ready or knowledgeable brought a quick demise. Years later when the kids play the game naturally down the sidewalks and the game has grown into the skin of America it breathes for itself.
Locally there are other things to bear in mind as a lot of sport now is very much part of societal consciousness. Who would have thought a professional ice – hockey team would hold a residency in Belfast for coming on twenty years. Rugby has slowly started to shake off its image as a game for less co-ordinated posh boys and has found a confidence to step out of its socially – insulated world. Irish League football? As alluded to it has found its own feet and is using them in a confident stride. It has cut the apron strings from its sixties’ heyday and having come through a turbulent recent history is now attracting suitors. Even the IFA are showing interest in their own national league. Yes, a lot who attend grounds here may well have some familial influence in the background, but with all those things that compete with football in a time – poor week it is a more studied decision that has folk part with their £11.
Summer football is a big call and is very much something the clubs will have to decide for themselves. That is something that might well run in tandem with their ability to go full-time in the longer term. The problem is some will be able to and some won’t. For me, the difficulties lie within not quite being one or the other. So revenue streams, sponsorship and the ability to market yourself become big issues much as it pains a lot of football fans to use these words. TV, of course, is a huge way of marketing yourself so everyone involved should tune in to this. That will attract interest and money that can sustain a full – time game though I think it is still a bit away.
Amidst the hoopla, it should be remembered that by and large part-time football is generally not broadcast live in most places. People here associate live football on the box with your Old Traffords and Anfields and projection of local football is not something with which they are familiar. The commentators will big it up to sell it. Football fans here see themselves as fans and not consumers and don’t feel the need to have more fans about them to enjoy the game in the way that consumers do to feel good about themselves. Smaller grounds maybe in one or two areas but the core support of the game here follow it sustainably and positively.
So live TV could be a good thing if managed properly and also if it is a part of the game continuing its upward thrust towards full- time football perhaps. Sky is already here but this will carry heavier local ‘whump’. Players and managers will develop more of a TV persona in some cases and will become more prominent. TV is a production that can distort and can amplify extreme good and bad – those are the areas that it relishes. However, it is always attracted to a steady core in the first place. Irish League football has that steadier core now and should be able to receive all this peripheral shakedown comfortably. It needs to remember that, grasp the opportunity and it should be a breeze.