As the fortieth anniversary of my first Irish League game looms towards the end of next month I thought it was an opportune time to write about its journey from then to now. It has been an interesting forty years with highs and lows as you would expect with anything in that period. A point I will make here is that my relationship with it has hardly deviated to any significance. Do make the difference here between the relationship between my team and the Irish League which has been much more up and down though will never break- and indeed as I amble through the post meridian of my life it will probably grow stronger.
When I first went to a game in August 1977 it was like going through the middle of the TV to access it. Not that local football was televised, but my only exposure to it was that of broadcasters Leslie Daws, Harry Thompson or John Bennett reading out the results and doing a bit of a review circa 17:00 hours on a Saturday after Dickie Davies or David Coleman on TV. That is probably still true for most people today. It happened but it was somewhere in the world out there. A mate of mine had a mate who went religiously to a club and I was invited along. *Like NI v England three months previously, I went along and there in front of me on a pristine pitch appeared a real live team that I could follow if I chose for as long as I decided.
The fact they won 3-1 was neither here nor there – up to that point it was all remote. Now I knew where they were, how to get there and there were players, personalities, goals, and history to relate to. I’ m sure it was the same with many of you.
The fact that it is and was part time is an absolute neither here nor there and that needs to be taken on board by many. My link to my team is exactly the same as he or she who follows Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and on a wider scale, Barcelona, Real Madrid or Juventus. Real football fans get and understand this- the lightweights don’t
So what is worth mentioning? Well, when I started by and large most of the trophies went to Linfield and Glentoran – Belfast’s Big Two as known! There were occasional commando assault type interjections from the likes of Crusaders and Coleraine and Ards a few years previously but most ribbons used were either blue, white, red, green and black. It wasn’t quite Scotland or Spain but certainly not an own half free kick off it.
The problem in Ireland and perhaps a few other places in the same scenario is that everything is defined by crowds. Due to proximity and media exposure, everything is compared to England. It was a silly argument then and it’s a bar in the window argument now looking at the world wide party that the Premiership is.
Someone earlier on a football forum talked about water cooler moments with workmates who engage in talking football but haven’t a clue. They are to the power of ten in Ireland. Part time football is what it is and whilst one should aspire to improve on and off the pitch, as a spectator sport it will always have impenetrable limitations. The money primarily, population stop signs and the fact that the best players go across the water rank high. Yorkshire is about the size of NI. Players work during the day and do not get the chance to play against better teams to improve.
This needs to be said because a lot of negativity is ill informed and more to do with individual hang ups. I digress a little. Just to deal with crowds a bit, they were certainly better but not significantly in the late seventies. The clubs’ hold on its local community was probably greater too but in the world then wasn’t everything? The world is at your doorstep now. The next major point is obvious and applies in most places.
The only live football was the FA Cup final and the England v Scotland game. Highlights show covered about five games between ITV’s The BIG MATCH and MOTD and occasionally on Wednesday nights some European action. Today, of course, it is wall to wall and that is a big deal. The other things contributing are low-cost transport to England ( offset of course by the cost of the match being dearer than the flight) and the growth of junior and organised kids’ football. Indeed, when I was assistant to my kids’ teams I found it hard to get to a senior game in the afternoon.
Just about tied in with this is the fact that life is faster, more pressurised and time is precious.People have more options to spend their leisure time and people spend their money in a more diverse fashion. One of the things I would throw at local clubs is have they recognised that? What have you done to deal with it to keep relevant? In their defence, time and money probably prohibit, but the question still remains? The issue is probably crystallised in the fact that the first contact of a fan to a club may have been a gateman with the social and marketing skills of a gnat. That gateman though had probably done that for years, free of charge and on his own time and volition and was invaluable to the club. You can discuss and debate. That said, when Ulster’ s troubles raged high and hard local football kept up its production amidst intolerable pressures. You – fan – consumer – whoever you are, you can’t have it both ways.
On the pitch various initiatives have taken place – the most significant being promotion and relegation as against the re- election scenario which I think applied in the old Division 4 in England as well. It certainly shook things up, mid-nineties if I remember though certainly stand to be corrected. That is not perfect either as many teams the division below the local Premier League cannot always pass UEFA requirements. Overstretching, either can be due to lack of resource or lack of ambition but it exists, not just here but everywhere. My view is that is that P and R has been a good thing.
The number of teams allowed in the top flight has been played around a fair bit but Ulster can probably only carry on balance somewhere between 12- 14 teams if the quality is to maintain and sustain. The balance there between the quality issue I have mentioned, is too many competitions, over-familiarity for the fans and indeed demands on the players.
Other issues intervening as time marched on are the earlier European ties for the lower ranked football plankton such as ourselves. Slap bang in the middle of the summer it causes massive issues for local teams. The debate is now being clarified a little due to the ever increasing amounts of money to be won which can really float a part time club here substantially. Ah, money….what do you want…..the chance to have your team drawn against Europe’ s heavyweights as was in my day or play another Lithuanian minnow for half a million? On a longer term, this could seriously fracture the league competitively.
Other issues come to mind. Journalistically in my day, there was an iron strong cadre of solid journos such as Dennis O’ Hara, Bill Ireland, Alex Mills if I am right and a few others I apologise to for their omission. Certainly, to the punter in the street, they were all patrolled by the Scottish patriarchal Belfast Telegraph journalist Malcolm Brodie who was the Adam and Eve on all things football here. Nowadays there is certainly much more colour and verve from our local scribes but individual allegiances and hang ups are detectable.
They can’t be accused of taking it easy. Stephen Looney’s guest and magazine show on Belfast Live TV and the online show ‘ The Social Club ‘ are excellent in lively debate, interesting topics and showcase the journalists as fans and promoters. The relevantly new Northern Ireland Football League who now market and administer the local leagues are gradually making their presence felt in a good way- both online and promotionally. That was a must but I still cross examine the Irish Football Association. As the highest body in the land, it is your duty to promote and maximise the game in your bailiwick- not just the international team.
Most folks’ issue is always to do with the standard and many talk about that not knowing whether they are actually talking about a regimental flag or level of play. To be honest I don’t believe it has advanced at all ‘ significantly ‘. Other countries- Scandinavia particularly, have been able to jump ahead of us over the years but the weekly bread and butter is probably our focus. The main issue for me to take it back to the beginning is how competitive the league is now. In the same way, one of the attractions of the English Premier League on a worldwide basis is the ability of any one team to beat another. That now applies locally. The league at present, whilst maybe separated above and below the waistline a bit too much, has many more competitive teams who can rightly consider themselves a contender as Mr Brando might say. There’s an image – Marlon Brando with his Crusaders scarf on.
Managers now simply can’t come out of the half – time burger stall to run the team. Proper UEFA recognised A licenses are required and most clubs now have various academies on the go. The downside if you like is that the old reserve sides which were of major interest to club fans are much diminished. It used to be a very competitive Reserve league but now simply does not hold the same cachet. Grounds have mostly been improved and indeed all have floodlights which was not the case when I started. The two o’clock winter kick off is no more.
The big two as I mentioned used to be Linfield and Glentoran. Debate has swayed in recent years as to whether this is actually North Belfast’s Crusaders and Cliftonville. Nowadays it is perhaps Crusaders and Linfield but isn’t all this great? Those four clubs can be joined by Glenavon, Coleraine and now Ballymena United as anything but cannon fodder. Geographical issues also come into play. The sad loss to lower leagues of stalwarts such as Distillery and perhaps Bangor are balanced by the wider land inclusion of Ballinamallard in Fermanagh, Warrenpoint in South Down, Institute in Derry and Carrick Rangers in East Antrim. The senior game now is province wide as against the previous East of the Bann cartel it had been for years. The bigger history of some of these clubs has been excellently covered by Stephen Gilliland, Cameron Moore and Adrian Hack on our site.
As far as I see it, local clubs are much more aware of their place in football and society and are reacting accordingly. Marketing, club shops and online awareness all play their part now on a pro rata level. Importantly, they are still very much part of the community so the soul in the local game will continue. Personally, that is important for me. Most things positive and sustaining go forward incrementally. The Irish League progresses with interest for many.
*My first game in May 1977 had been an international.