A switch would probably mean Premierships clubs would be more competitive in Europe
I RECENTLY read a few interesting quotes by general manager of Linfield Football Club Pat Fenlon following the club’s painful exit from Europe.
Unless you were living on another planet you readers will know that the Blues failed to qualify for the Europa Conference League in the most excruciating circumstances. David Healy’s team ultimately went out on penalties to Lativian outfit Rigas Futbola Skola after 30 seconds of pure madness at Windsor Park.
An 104th minute goal by Kyle McClean looked to have earned Linfield a precious 3-2 victory but in added time of extra-time the Blues spurned a four-on-one opportunity to put the game to bed. Their opponents pumped the ball straight down the field and a bizarre own goal by Jimmy Callacher handed the Lativians a last-gasp lifeline.
The Blues were busted, physically and mentally, and not surprisingly RFS emerged victorious from the dreaded shootout and, as a consequence, pocketed a whopping £2.5 million. That 30 seconds cost Linfield mega bucks.
On reflection it’s hard to comprehend exactly how the Premiership champions lost that two-legged tie. They allowed a two-nil lead to slip in the first leg and dominated the second for long periods and squandered a number of opportunities before the drama of extra-time unfolded.
Fenlon firmly believes that had Linfield being going into that tie in the midst of a summer season they would have been the first Irish League side to contest the group stages of a European competition.
“That’s where we believe we should be – it’s not being blase or big-headed, this is the table we should be dining at and it’s an opportunity for clubs like ourselves to reach that level. Hopefully we can get another crack at it next season,” he said.
“That is where Linfield Football Club should be and when you look at Shamrock Rovers you can feel envious, but they are ahead of us with regard to professionalism and full-time football they have adopted. The key for us is to keep knocking on the door and have belief.
“We’re a big club, in the context of the island, and we need to be at that table. We don’t have outside investment into the club, it all comes from the membership and the supporters. So we need to be serious about European football.
“And the League needs to be serious about European football. I still maintain that if we were playing summer football, we wouldn’t have lost a 2-0 lead in Riga.
“At that point we had one league game under our belt, whereas others have maybe 25 or 26. That’s a massive difference.”
In fairness Fenlon makes a very creditable point and I, for one, can’t disagree with his sentiments. His comments and indeed those along similar lines aired by Larne manager Tiernan Lynch some days earlier has again reignited the old debate around summer football.
By listening to those very much in the pro-summer football camp, you would think it was the panacea; the answer to all our problems!
Fenlon, Lynch and others are probably bang on the money when they claim that summer football would indeed increase the chances of a local team qualifying for the group stages of a European competition.
Were NIFL to go down that road it may well be good news for the Linfields, the Glentorans, the Larnes, the Coleraines, the Cliftonvilles and the Crusaders of this world but what about the rest?
Would it be a good thing for Dungannon Swifts for example?
We’d all love to see an Irish League team competiting in the Europa Conference League; you would think it would raise the profile of the local game and, as such, everyone would be a winner.
However were Irish Premiership sides to qualify for European group stages on a regular basis would that not just feed into the reality that the top sides are getting stronger and the bottom sides are getting weaker.
There is little doubt that there is a gap developing between the top six and the bottom six and anything that widens that would do little for the competitiveness of the league as a whole.
Honestly I have no particularly strong views when it comes to the summer-versus-winter debate. Purely for selfish reasons I’m probably a traditionalist, mainly because it fits in better with my current lifestyle.
I certainly wouldn’t be adverse to giving summer football a go if that’s what the majority so desired but if NIFL was going to take us down that particular road I think clubs would need to weigh up all the pros and cons very carefully.
Right now Irish League football is in a good place. Season on season I believe the league continues to improve on and off the field and that is being reflected by increasing attendances and more money coming into the game from various streams.
A number of clubs have gone fully professional – that’s a debate for another day – and that is providing greater opportunities for younger players and improving standards.
Initial attendance figures suggests that Sunday football is the most recent success story and perhaps the next natural step in the evolution/transformation of the game locally is indeed a switch to the summer.
Then again some might argue that if it ain’t broke why try and fix it.
Without doubt there is a very real debate to be had and most reasonable people will see both sides of the argument.
Like me, most will probably go with the flow providing all the influenciung factors have been given due consideration and that the final decision is a well informed one.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere
SUBSCRIBE TO CURRENT EDITION TODAYand get access to our archive editions dating back to 2007
(CLICK ON THE TITLE BELOW TO SUBSCRIBE)