The changing face of football in Northern Ireland: IFA, NIFL and Larne FC

Northern Ireland

Football is an institution that subscribes to a ‘Theory of Evolution’ of sorts. To thrive it needs to adapt and move with the times. Considering this, both the Irish FA and Northern Ireland Football League have released their development strategies in recent weeks. There is much crossover between the two documents – the ultimate aim being to positively develop football in Northern Ireland at all levels.


The IFA’s document outlines a 5-year plan for ‘promoting, fostering and developing football for all’. The strategy encompasses everything from international football through the top levels of the domestic game and into the grassroots of football in Northern Ireland.

Internationally, the IFA have set a slogan of “challenge every time, qualify every other time”. In short, the country is riding the crest of a wave after Euro 2016 qualification, the association sees this as a platform to build on – Northern Ireland should always be competitive in their qualification groups and should be aiming to qualify for Finals on a regular basis but also recognising that qualifying every time is unrealistic.

High on the IFA’s agenda remains the notion of a National Training Centre to accommodate all teams from senior international to the youngest Club NI age group – somewhat like the St George’s Park facility that the English FA have developed. Alongside this, the IFA want to introduce Performance Academies in conjunction with local universities as a programme for 16-23-year olds to provide a football education alongside an academic one. Finally, in this area, the establishment of Performance Schools to work alongside post-primary education centres to ensure young footballers receive an adequate balance of academia alongside their hopes of a career in football.

The IFA promise to appoint a Talent ID Manager who will work full-time to identify potential players for our international squads at all levels, male and female. This ‘scout’ would work through England, Scotland and within Northern Ireland itself to identify players with noticeable talent. Alongside this, a Northern Ireland Coaching DNA will be formalised to ensure that all levels of the International set up are working in perfect harmony to ensure a smooth transition between the age groups.

The Irish FA will finally seek to host further international competitions at our new state of the art National Stadium and beyond. This notion has already bore fruit as Northern Ireland gear up to host the UEFA Under-19 Women’s tournament in August 2017 with a further commitment to host the European Under-19 Men’s Championship in 2020.


The IFA have also made commitments to improve the domestic game. The first being to provide use of the proposed National Training Centre to allow clubs to prepare for European Competition. With this, the IFA have proposed to help deliver what they call ‘significant, high profile development’ of NIFL Premiership grounds with a further promise of up to 20 smaller projects for clubs outside the Premiership.

In addition to the above, Irish FA mention the deliverance of new Regional Hubs in each of the new super-council areas to be used as the focus for local IFA activity. There is also the promise of subsidised training for club ground staff and further workshops to be held at The National Stadium.

The IFA and NIFL have set out a vision of breaking into the Top 40 European Leagues based on UEFA co-efficients – NIFL Premiership currently ranks at 47th. In order to help with this there is to be discussion around tweaking the football season to ensure clubs will be active in May and June so they are better prepared for European fixtures. The obvious positive in progressing in Europe is the financial income which would be awarded to clubs.

The Irish FA also discuss supporting Lifestyle Programmes which will look at areas such as training and nutrition for players by way of funding courses for clubs and providing experts as a guide. There is also a section discussing funding to help with costs associated with administrative staff at NIFL Premiership clubs, recognising that this is an area that is becoming increasingly important in the developing game.


Further to all of the practical items, the strategy also sets out aims related to commercial aspects, ticketing strategies and development of a thriving stadium business.

Larne FC announce set up changes

Around the same time as the IFA/NIFL strategy plan releases, Larne FC also released a statement indicating a change in how they will operate. Larne have announced a working partnership with the University of Ulster that will effectively see their players training full time. The concept will provide education for the players in the morning with training in the afternoon. In addition to this partnership, Larne will have full access to the impressive facilities available at the University of Ulster.

The programme is being supported by Red Strike, an International Marketing Company who help to develop and promote footballers. Red Strike have links with Macron who will sponsor the team’s playing and training kits for the season.

It’s an interesting project to provide what is essentially full-time training to local players and one that will be of great interest to see how it develops over the coming season.

About the Author

Matt McKay
Glentoran and Northern Ireland fan.