It is that time of the year again when Irish League clubs are fighting. Not just for a league title, but also the lucrative package of a European qualifier, and all the financial benefits it brings with it. Teams in Northern Ireland used to earn a place for the qualifiers on merit. But now they go into a play-off which sees the teams in third, fourth, fifth, six and seventh all play off against each other for the final spot. I am now going to delve into how this has happened and try and make sense of the whole qualifying procedure.
So, the Northern Irish Premier League, now known as the Danske Bank Premiership, was formally known as the Irish Football Association Premiership up until the end of season 2013. Qualification for the European places was simple and on a par with most countries. The league champions got automatic qualification to the Champions Cup early stages. Runners up went straight into the Europa League Qualifiers with the third-placed club and the Irish cup winners also going straight into the Europa League Qualifiers.
In 2014 the top three leagues in the country were then taken over by a new body… the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL). The thought behind this was to help with the improvement of stadia, our status in European competitions and to provide a better league structure along with a better commercial image. Well, five years in and there has only been one stadium that has had money pumped into it. Ards also still don’t have a ground of their own. If clubs want to improve their stadia, they do it by applying for grants and a lot of the time these are not through the NIFL!
Out with the old in with the new
So at the end of the 2014/15 season, the clubs themselves voted in a new structure that they were happy with concerning the qualification for European football. So, working hard and finishing in third place no longer merited the automatic qualification into Europe. The new system that was voted down was a play-off for clubs finishing from third all the way down to the seventh position. The winner of this play-off will take the last spot and the financial windfall that European football has to offer. Personally, how a team that finishes in seventh place can take away a spot from a team that sits in third does not make much sense to me.
This season is where this gets really interesting and a little complicated due to Crusaders getting into the Irish Cup Final. Let us break this down a little.
- If Crusaders finish second in the Danske Bank Premiership and by chance, (and this is not saying by any means it will definitely happen) Crusaders beat Ballinamallard United in the Irish Cup Final. They will qualify for Europe League, not for finishing second in the league but for winning the Irish Cup. The reason behind this is that the team that finishes in second place goes into the Europa League preliminary round. The team that wins the Irish Cup go into the first qualifying round. So the Cup finish provides a better position to start in Europe. That means the team finishing third in the league would move up and qualify in the league position into the preliminary round. The teams in fourth to seventh position would contest a place with a play-off. A two-leg semi-final followed by a final with the playoff winners earning a place in the Europa preliminary round.
- The next scenario is if Crusaders were to win the Irish Cup and finish in one of the Europa League play-off spots. They would again qualify for Europe by winning the Cup and so would not have to contest in the play-offs. This again means all the remaining teams from third to seventh would contest in the play-offs. I say from third to seventh, well that’s because Crusaders will finish in the top half somewhere and it then takes four teams to contest the play-offs.
- So, let us change tack. If Ballinamallard United were to win the Irish Cup they would qualify for the Europa League first qualifying round as cup winners. But there is a bigger issue… they have not received the relevant UEFA license to play games in Europe. If they receive the licence then they will take their place in the qualifying round. This is when I think it gets stupid. All five teams from third down to seventh would then contest the play-off. How they hope to bring it from five teams to four? The teams that finish in sixth and seventh place will play each other in a quarter-final. At the present time that would be Coleraine against Glentoran, with the winner then moving in to play the other three teams in the main play-off. Why? I do not know!
- So, the last scenario is if Ballinamallard United win the Irish Cup but do not receive the relevant UEFA licence. The cup winner berth, which comes with the automatic qualification to the first qualifying round of the Europa League, will go to the team that comes runners-up in the league. The league’s third-placed team would then be awarded the place in the Europa League preliminary round, which is usually awarded to the runners up. I hope that makes a little sense but it was hard to work out myself. Personally, I think it should be the Cup runners-up the next take this place, not the league runners up. Why jump from the Cup to the league when they are two stand-alone competitions?
This is one hell of a complicated system. I have my own theory on why the motion to have this play-off system was put in place. Clubs want their share of the European money. So, when a motion is tabled at a meeting for a vote, you have 12 top flight teams. You can see where the vote is going to go as the pound signs kick in.
I have tried to look for the minutes of this meeting and see which club actually tabled this motion. But as with a lot of things in the world of Irish League Football, information is locked away. Good luck to whoever comes out of this with a European place. I am fully for qualifying through your league position. The season is a long and hard one and teams have got to third and fourth places on merit. Why should they then have to go and fight it out with the team in seventh place, who have just not cut it this season?