Positive signs from NIFL at League cup showpiece

Celebration as Cliftonville win the Wasp Solutions League Cup Final on penalties.  Joe Gormley, Conor Devlin, Ryan Catney and George McMullan
Celebration as Cliftonville win the Wasp Solutions League Cup Final on penalties. Joe Gormley, Conor Devlin, Ryan Catney and George McMullan

Remember the date, Saturday 25th of January 2014. Dare I say it that perhaps this is the day when our local football product finally took a long overdue turn for the better?

I was working at the ‘WASP SOLUTIONS LTD’ League Cup Final between Cliftonville FC and Crusaders FC at Solitude and although no ‘one’ major change in particular in this game stood out over and above any other high profile final, feel lots of small changes certainly did.

From the moment I recieved an email on the Friday before the game from NIFL (Northern Ireland Football League) to advise me that some pre match hospitality was being provided for the media and others , well I just got a feeling that they were making a real genuine effort to ensure the the whole event would be a guaranteed sucess.

This was indeed NIFL’s first Cup Final to stage since its formation by the IFA late last year, and believe me all the necessary signs were there that tells me they have their act well and truly together, particularly given the shambles they inherited, and all in such a short space of time.

All of the leading members of NIFL were easily identifyable by virtue of their new black padded jackets, (not pin stripe suits), all working hard to seek assurance that everyone else’s needs and concerns were being catered for.

In fact, as I sat there enjoying my pre match meal in the Solitude hospitality suite, I didn’t see one NIFL member availing of the same tasty grub on offer, and the reason for that was quite simple, they were far too busy down at ground level making sure they left absolutely nothing to chance.

They are neither too aloof, nor are they too full of their own importance for that task, and they don’t use foot soldiers, they ARE the foot soldiers.

NIFL had already achieved one major sucess prior to the Cup Final with the news that ‘WASP SOLUTIONS LTD’ would be this year’s sponsors, achieved undoubtedly by proper marketing of the event and perhaps even by the personalities within the NIFL structure.

To be perfectly honest I had never heard of the new sponsors until the last few days, but I, like a few thousand others are aware of them now and hopefully any of our football family needing such expertise will avail of their services, they deserve a response.

As per usual many thanks goes to the host club Cliftonville Football Club who as always made sure plenty of hot drinks and snacks were delivered up to the commentary seats, extremely welcome on what was a bitterly cold day.

Both sets of fans also played their part in helping create what was a fantastic carnival atmosphere, even one Cliftonville fan arrived in fancy dress with the full papal regalia dressed as the pope, and after having made a late entry proceeded to bless both me and my BBC radio Ulster colleague and main commentator Joel Tagggart, it was absolutely hilarious.

Then just prior to kick off we had the spectacle of both club chairmen, Gerard Lawlor of Cliftonville and Stephen Bell of Crusaders, walking up the centre of the pitch together, side by side, in what for me was a superb show of mutual respect, and despite the magnitude and importance of the game which was just about to kick off, these two gentlemen made it quite clear to everyone present that yes, football is a highly competitive sport, particularly between these two North Belfast rivals, but we must never forget that indeed it is only that, a sport afterall.

One other recollection from Saturday past was an observation pointed out to me by Joel Taggart, and that was the number of families in attendance with small children, what a pleasing aspect that was and one which must be encouraged at every opportunity in the future. There is of course one major downside to this particular initiative, and that is the ‘way over the top’ amount of cursing and swearing which is very prevalent at football matches, not only locally but on the mainland as well.

This is a delicate topic for me to discuss as I still do let the odd swear word slip out myself, although not in the public domain if possible.

It is most definately something of which I am not proud of, so therefore it would be wrong and hypocritical of me to point the finger at others, perhaps it is time we practiced what we preach?

Nevertheless, it IS a major problem in our game and there’s no point whatsoever continuing to bury our heads in the sand, it ain’t going to go away unaided.

But, when all is said and done, it is extremely detrimental to what is a very welcome initiative of attracting families with young kids back to watch our sport and for me there is no time like the present for us all to face up to reality.

But just how do we address the problem? I honestly have no idea whatsoever, but if anyone out there can suggest a constructive and workable solution, then please feel free to contact any member of NIFL or indeed even yours truly.

We cannot continue to pretend it doesn’t exist or turn a blind eye any longer, we have a responsibility to our kids and are duty bound to work hard, at least in the interim period, to at least reduce the unacceptable verbal alternatives chosen by far too many at a football match.

As for the actual game itself on Saturday, well, lets just say it won’t live long in the memory of the neutral, despite the excitement of extra time and the thrill of penalty kicks being required to determine the eventual winners, for me the game will be instantly forgettable, two excellent sides who quite simply cancelled each other out.

But, despite feeling absolutely gutted to lose a cup final in such a cruel way, the Crusaders players proceeded to applaud their own fans first before turning and applauding the Cliftonville fans in what was a jam packed arena.

The ‘Reds’ fans responded in true sporting fashion by applauding the Crusaders players as they made their way off the Solitude pitch towards the dressing rooms in what was a carbon copy (but in reverse) of what happened at Seaview on Boxing Day, only on that occasion it was the Crusaders fans applauding the Cliftonville players off the pitch at the final whistle and again on that occasion every Reds player returned the goodwill gesture to a man by applauding the Crues fans.

As I say, as a cup final it wasn’t the best, but then cup finals by in large do tend to be something of an anti climax on many occasions, but Saturday past just seemed that wee bit different to me.

This was one of those times when I genuinely detected a ‘feel good’ factor, a wee buzz, and those few albeit small tell tale signs that maybe, just maybe, we have stopped the rot in our local game and have begun that that long long climb back up the ladder to where all genuine football fans long to be.

So my top marks go to NIFL, for me you have passed your first major test with flying colours, you have clearly paid heed to the ordinary football person in the street and have taken their views and concerns on board.

We must never forget that this game belongs to the people. That’s why it’s vital they have their say, and that is where some others in lofty positions of power in the past made a fatal mistake, so thanks for listening to the people who matter and acting accordingly.

Its possibly only one small step in what is a marathon of a journey ahead, but after Saturday, I honestly do feel we will soon begin to see the green shoots of recovery, so remember the date, it may well prove crucial in the rehabilitation of the game we love.