The Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) launched its new vision on Wednesday night, designed to provide a structure for the new company – and local football.
Familiar debates over summer football and how many clubs feature in the top division resurfaced and will be key talking points for new focus groups, mainly representing clubs and other stakeholders, over coming weeks.
NIFL’s vision regurgitates the usual core values – commercial viability, increased media coverage and an improvement in the overall quality of the game.
Besides qualifying for a major tournament and building a new national stadium, it looks just like the Irish FA’s new five-year plan. It reads in the same straightforward, modern-worded way with smiling optimism.
This one, however, has UEFA’s direct input, rather than simply mirroring the best bits of models in other small nations.
Tom Gorrisen, a UEFA advisory manager, is tasked with supporting associations to restructure and implement change to benefit football in their country, and believes getting the right structure and strong brand recognition are important for NIFL.
“Both the IFA and NIFL have the ambition to further develop league football in Northern Ireland. There is also an upward potential for Northern Irish club football; based on the average club income, a higher spot on the UEFA country ranking could be expected.”
Gorrisen, who has worked with leagues in Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal, says there is no better promotion than sporting quality – a good standard of football – but packaging it correctly is essential.
“Involving all 42 clubs and asking them what they want is an interesting approach and could be chaotic, but UEFA will help to support the steering group, containing representatives from the NIFL board, its management and IFA management.
“We hope to report back with our findings by mid-May, after regional meetings, returning to UEFA’s HQ in Nyon to analyse the findings, and then return following further consultation with the final results.
“There will be winners and losers in this, but I encourage everyone to go into this with an open mind and to keep an eye on the bigger picture.”
Gorrisen also indicated that, with an annual income of around £600,000, per club in the NIFL Premier League, Northern Ireland is sitting at 36th out of 54 UEFA member associations in terms of money coming in. But this is not being converted into sporting results, with Northern Ireland at 47th out of 54, and could in theory increase their UEFA co-efficient.
He added: “There is certainly an opportunity, there is momentum with new management and a clear vision about league football in Northern Ireland. But everyone has to work together.
“If the ambition of the NIFL is to have a professional league then you have to make the change from semi-professional to professional, meaning financial sustainability and a strict licensing system.
“Moreover, budget-monitoring needs to happen; we do that at UEFA too with financial fair play and that is part of regulating competition.”
Andrew Johnston, NIFL managing director added: “We want to create safe, family-friendly and exciting environments within our leagues, and we will work with clubs and each of our key stakeholders to achieve this.
“In partnership with each of the 42 member clubs, and working with UEFA, we will engage with focus groups and consult with the media after Christmas.
“The vision is our statement of intent but we are putting this into action, starting in Coleraine on Monday for the first focus group meeting.”