Northern Ireland in the ascendancy?

BELFAST club Crusaders will soon be the latest club from Northern Ireland to benefit from substantial financial investment. The Crusaders fans overwhelmingly voted to approve the potential £ 2.5 million investment by a consortium fronted by former Liverpool striker Ian Rush, a decision that could transform the Hatchetmen’s fortunes.

Irish football has already seen Glentoran and Larne receive fresh investment in the form of British-Iranian businessman Ali Pour and online mogul Kenny Bruce respectively. Crusaders’ chairman, Ron Millar, said “standing still is not an option”, a reflection of the new wealth in Irish football that is forcing clubs to reassess their situation. 

Increasingly, clubs from England and Scotland are scouring the Belfast area for players, one of the reasons being Brexit, which has prevented clubs from signing youngsters under the age of 18 from the European Union. Nottingham Forest are just one of the clubs who have identified Northern Ireland as a rich source of raw talent. Not everyone is happy with this development, though. Glentoran manager Mick McDermott spoke out earlier this year, suggesting English clubs are exploiting the situation and should pay what the players are really worth.

The Irish League was where footballing legends Danny Blanchflower (Glentoran), Jimmy McIlroy (Glentoran), Derek Dougan (Distillery) and Peter Doherty (Coleraine) began their careers. The players making headlines at the moment, such as Jay Donnelly and Conor McMenamin of Glentoran are arguably too old to make a mark in England.

Linfield, Northern Ireland’s leading club, are leading the way once more in 2021-22.  They have won the league title 55 times, more than double the number of their rivals Glentoran. They currently lead the table by a single point over Cliftonville, another Belfast outfit.

Linfield announced in 2021 that they will adopt a full-time model with the aim of optimising European competition participation and increasing their support base. Glentoran and Larne have also turned full-time, but opinions are divided over the benefits and pitfalls of full-time football. 

Linfield’s finances underline the modest state of the game in Northern Ireland. Total revenues in 2019-20 were £ 1.5 million and wages accounted for £ 1.1 million of overall income. The club’s average attendances, pre-covid, were around 2,400 which equated to almost double the league average. The biggest wage bill belongs to Cliftonville, but around 40% of their outlay is on non-football staff. Larne, Coleraine and Glentoran pay out close to half a million in salaries.

Irish teams didn’t fare too well in Europe in 2021-22. Linfield went out of the Champions League in the first qualifying round to Žalgiris of Lithuania and then the third qualifying round of the Europa Conference League. Larne, Coleraine and Glentoran also failed to make an impact.

But nobody should underestimate the importance of football to society in Belfast and other towns in Northern Ireland. Only recently, a new mural depicting the city’s favourite son, George Best sprung up, emphasising that the Manchester United legend will never be forgotten, and a study by UEFA revealed that the game contributes around half a billion pounds to the local economy. Football also features in the Kenneth Branagh film, Belfast.

Most people realise that more investment is needed in the game in Northern Ireland. The Irish FA published its paper, “A roadmap for football” in 2021 and among the priorities was an intitiative to get 100,000 young people and 50,000 adults playing football. Furthermore, the Irish FA wants to raise £ 100 million over five years to reinvestment in the development of the game. However, a scheme to provide funds for stadium redevelopment has stalled owing to political hurdles. The £ 36.2 million programme would allocate £ 10 million for the refurbishment of the Oval, home of Glentoran, and £ 17 million to the Premiership and £ 3 million for the Championship. A new training centre would also receive £ 3 million.

The days when every major team had an Irishman somewhere in their squad may have gone, but there are a number of promising young Irishmen with top clubs in England, such as Shea Charles (Manchester City), Ethan Galbraith (Manchester United), Conor Bradley (Liverpool) and Isaac Price (Everton). 

Meanwhile, back in Belfast, the battle for the Premiership title reaches a crucial phase. There’s six rounds of matches to go and the two main contenders, Linfield and Cliftonville, will meet at some stage in the coming weeks at the latter’s Solitude stadium. It’s a title race that could to the very last game.