The State of Northern Irish Club Football

May 22, 2019

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NIFL Premiership

Founded: 2008

Most Championships: Linfield, 5

Last 5 Winners: Linfield (18/19, 16/17), Crusaders (17/18, 15/16, 14/15)

UEFA Ranking: 52nd

Highest Ranked Club: Crusaders, 234th

Interview with Michael Clarke host of The Score podcast

What is the current state of the Northern Irish league?

Football in Northern Ireland is in a good place. Although crowds are not what they used to, the signs are there to suggest that the standard is improving and attendances are better than they were a few years ago. A large portion of the praise for this must be placed on the NI Football League who have been prepared to change the league’s format and try create a more competitive and entertaining product for fans.

The emergence of television deals with BBC Sport NI and Sky Sports are a sign of the resurgence in popularity of the local game.

As a minnow of European Football, what do Northern Irish fans and teams expect from their European campaigns and what would qualify as a success?

Honestly, very little. Quite often the draw pits NI teams up against full-time professional clubs whose resources dwarf those of the sides from our league, most of whom operate under a part-time structure.

Opportunities to progress to the next round are hindered further by the fact that these fixtures happen to be the first competitive match that NI clubs will have played in that season and usually what we see is this playing out in what can be a very one-sided affair.

Success for most really depends on the draw but progression to the next round would do for most sides here as the financial reward goes a long way when you consider the small budgets our clubs survive on in contrast to European counterparts.

How much do the fans and teams look forward to European competition?

I think supporters enjoy the away day experience, an excuse to travel abroad to watch your club and treat it as a bit of a holiday.

As there are usually low expectations the atmosphere is friendly, rather than tense or hostile. Our fans appreciate the dedication Irish League players show and whereas the League is life or death, the European competitions certainly are not.

How much of a struggle is it for the Northern Irish teams to keep their best players?

In the Irish Premiership there is definitely a split between the top six clubs and the bottom six clubs, finances play their part and like any league the best players quickly make their way to the top clubs in pursuit of success. How many are lured across the water to England or Scotland? Well, this number is certainly on the rise. In recent times Bobby Burns, Mark Sykes, Gavin Whyte, Paul Smyth and Brad Lyons all have made the move to full-time football and have done well so far. Their success is likely to encourage other clubs to take our top league more seriously.

The difficulty in transfer dealings can be whether a bigger club in the UK is willing to recognise the value of the player they’re pursuing, who will almost certainly be a huge asset to the Irish League side they’re trying to sign him from.

Is a Champions League / Europa League game involving Northern Irish side watched by most of the nation?

Sadly not. This is simply because the games are not televised. Perhaps if those games were more competitive television companies might look further into broadcasting them but as it stands it’s a healthy revenue generator for the clubs and competing is a sign of domestic success. European glory is still quite some way off.

How do you think Europa League 2 will affect the Northern Irish sides?

I’m not sure yet, to be quite honest, but I’m willing to give it some time before forming my judgement. However, my instinct is that Northern Irish clubs will do better, which can only be a good thing.

Do you think UEFA are doing enough to help the minnows of European football and what can they do to further help them?

The answer is probably there’s always room for more help from UEFA. I know they have assisted NIFL in the restructuring process, with the Europa League play-off being both contentious and exciting depending on which team you support. The rules are complicated but it’s a play-off that in principle takes place between the sides who place between 3rd and 7th at the end of the league season.

One simple change I believe UEFA should implement is allowing Irish League clubs to play on the same night as Champions League / Europa League games. At present there is a financial penalty for this happening, which clubs simply can’t afford. The problem this creates is fixture congestion as matches then need to be played closer together and hamper sides in the preparation for crucial fixtures. I understand that UEFA wants to send out a consistent message to leagues but it is impractical for UEFA to look at Irish League football and hold it to the same standard as the Premier League in England.

Interview with Michael Clarke host of The Score podcast

Find all your Champions League betting odds here

A Europa League infographic

Author: Tom Mortimer

Tom is the editor at Betting Circle and has been creating online content for over 10 years. Tom mainly writes about sport and gambling, but every now and then also delves into fleshier subjects like politics and psychology. When he was 18 he created and over the last few years he's written on a freelance basis for ESPN, WorldSoccer,, among many others.

Twitter @TMortimerFtbl

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