Technically for 4 teams the season has already started. The IFA Carling Premiership begins on the 8th August but for Glentoran, Crusaders, Linfield and Lisburn Distillery, competitive football began in July with the Qualifying rounds of the Champions league and the inaugural Europa league. Unfortunately all teams were knocked out of their respective competitions with Crusaders showing the most determination, losing 5-3 on aggregate to FK Rabotnicki.
The tie was even after the first leg game, 1-1 with the Crues outplaying their opposition but with a twist of fate, the hatchetmen ended up having to recover in the dying seconds with a Davy Rainy header. Earlier in the 2nd half, before the dramatic late equaliser, the Crues had Colin Coates dismissed for some amateur dramatics from the opposition. That in turn was followed late in the half by a red card for the Rabotnicki keeper and the resulting penalty being missed before the late goal. In the 40 degree heat of the Macedonian capital, Skopje, the Northern Irish contingent were undone but not without putting up a fight. It’s a good time to remember the Crusaders team have jobs to do back home as well as play football and the Irish League is semi pro. FK Rabotnicki in comparison are full time and only two years ago drew against Bolton Wanderers. The game was 2-0 with the Crues bringing it back to 2-1, but the heat told and a bad pass led to 3-1 and then nothing could stop 4-1 before a late consolation brought the score to 4-2.
Since these games, preseason has been continuing in full force and one such game for an Irish League club, in the form of Glentoran, was a glamour friendly against none other than Leeds United.
Having held season tickets at two clubs in my lifetime, one being Crusaders and the other being Leeds, Glentoran an Irish league club playing Leeds was a game I had to see. My dad and cousin were over on what was also a wedding planning related trip so we took a wee party along to the game. It was admittedly a low key atmosphere compared to games at Elland Road but that’s understandable given it was a friendly. Players gracing the Oval were the likes of Fabian Delph and Jermaine Beckford but it was Robert Snodgrass who broke the deadlock early on after a goal that seemed to happen in slow motion from a lucky deflection that fell to him from the edge of the box in front of the Leeds support. Beckford made the second breakthrough in a game that saw a strong first team being fielded by both clubs. He ran on to a through ball and rounded the keeper to score. The Glens were doing ok but it wasn’t until they took most of their supposedly best team off that they started to pose any problems for Leeds. Lots of changes and the dynamic of the game changed, culminating in a goal for Glentoran. Certainly the best goal of the game. It was a strong run towards the box from Andrew Hall, who then sent in a cross that was met by Grant Gardiner who finished brilliantly. Leeds finished it off late on with another goal with a final score of 1-3.
This is only a taste of things to come and although a losing start for Irish League clubs there will be winners by the end of the season, the main winners being the fans and anyone who takes in a game. The football in Northern Ireland may not have the funds backing it to bring overpaid world beating brilliance to the petite grounds of Northern Irish Clubs or indeed currently and more critically; retain the talent they do develop. However, as I’ve stated before, the gap in entertainment isn’t as big as most people seem to think between the English leagues that here in N.I. Or to put it another way, there isn’t much difference between what people perceive as football worth paying through the nose to watch from the comfort of their own homes compared to that being offered to them to witness first hand for a fraction of the cost and much more besides - namely all the experiences that make football the game so marketable today for BSKYB and that keep it the one of the main sports spanning all walks of life and entertaining people around the world.
Through a more professional attitude within the sport and in my opinion, the IFA slowly changing for the better (still with much room for improvement though), the league here is improving - this can be seen both on the pitch and (when funding has been able to be accessed) off the pitch too. The focus has to be on brining more fans and families back to game and it’s the image built up by the media that seems the biggest hurdle. Put it this way, pricing is amazing value for money. With Crusaders a full season of home fixtures for a junior (15-17yr olds) is £35, and Kids/OAP’s just £30! A full adult ticket is still also a bargain in comparison to other forms of entertainment at £120 (see the Crusaders FC site for more details) – most other clubs are also around the same in terms of their pricing. Our football clubs are also helping to bring constructive solutions to problems that face our communities. Give a kid a chance to emulate their football hero’s and it might keep them from getting into trouble on the streets. Kids from all 3 sides of the community; Nationalist, Loyalist and the growing number who don’t care - all taking part together. Recently Cliftonville FC and Crusaders FC, North Belfast rivals both looking to the future, have even joined forces to develop the Academy North, a football academy which will bring an amazing opportunity for talented youngsters in the area.
So with this in mind the big question is just the season ahead. This season looks to be the most exciting for many a season. With Linfield’s dominance broken by a determined Glentoran side last season. Those two will be challenging again for title honours this season, however thrown into the mix will likely be a couple of other sides, Crusaders who now have greater strength and depth with some great summer signings made by Stephen Baxter and Portadown who with Ronnie McFall at the helm have always played well and could have the potential to make an impact. Portadown are back in the top flight after their omission due to the timing of some paper work last season and like with their CIS Cup victory last season, they’ll be out to impress and will have a point to prove.
Along with these sides there could be a few who turn past form upside down teams like Cliftonville who underperformed last season after a great season the year before and could make the rise up the league again. Who knows who else might spring a suprise, many players in the Irish League only keep 1 year contracts and there have been many changes at several clubs. Even at the foot of the table it’s not looking like anyone could be classed as a favourite to go down and with anyone more than capable of taking points from anyone else, it’s the sort of football that might suck for the gamblers but will keep those keeping up with the action enthralled from beginning to end. The split 5 games from the end as with last season adds a little more spice to the mix, if things are tight it could be a nail biter for some teams well before the end of the season.
I just hope to go with the increased interest in this coming season the press will get on board. With Carling the new sponsors, they’ll hopefully pitch in with some marketing know-how and the games and clubs might be helped to finally gain some of the good publicity and coverage they deserve. Saying that, as any long time fan of the Irish League would tell you - don’t hold your breath. A lot of the media seemingly have no interest in football here and when it is covered it’s half baked, seemingly second hand and with more errors than the 2007-08 Derby County defence. Anyway, enough of the problems to be overcome. The gist is the only decent way to follow the league is to go to games and see it unfold in person.
This weekend, I laid hands on my season ticket and can’t wait for the league to start. Personally I’ll be over the moon with a season like last and for those in Red and Black to bring home more silverware back to Seaview. Win, lose or draw though, there are thousands of folks in N.I who will be watching, cheering and singing to every kick of the games live from the stands on a Saturday afternoon, enjoying the highs and lows in each other’s company.
Where ever you might be, if you live within distance of a club, or get a chance to visit N.I during the season, why not take the plunge and give the Irish League and your local side a try. Here’s hoping for a great season of entertainment and more progress on and off the field for the sport of Football in Northern Ireland.