Stakeholders to have their say on IHL at open forums

Ards Lynsey Mallon in full flight against Pegasus during the Ulster Shield Final
Ards Lynsey Mallon in full flight against Pegasus during the Ulster Shield Final

Opinions remain divided about the pros and cons of a new look Irish Hockey League as far as the top two women’s clubs in Ulster are concerned.

The Irish Hockey Association stresses that they remain just that at the moment and all the various stakeholders will have a chance to air their views at a series of open forums in the coming weeks.

Ulster will host its event at Deramore Park on Monday February 24 when delegates will have a chance to listen to the various proposals, air their views and concerns and suggest modifications.

The IHA is in favour of a 12-team league, involving the top five finishers from Ulster and Leinster and two from Munster.

The qualifiers would play each other twice meaning a total of 22 matches over the course of the IHL campaign.

The teams concerned would be removed from the Premier Leagues in the various provinces and the numbers would be balanced up by adding teams from Senior One to make up the top tier of the Ulster League in our case.

So if the proposals were to come into effect next season, the top five teams from Senior One would replace the top five from the Premier League.

A recurring theme from local clubs who could well be involved in the new set up concerns the cost of competing and the availability or otherwise of schoolgirls.

Some clubs rely heavily on schoolgirls who traditionally play their hockey on Saturday mornings and therefore may have difficulty in lining out for their clubs on away days in particular.

Others who do not own their own facilities have no source of revenue from gate receipts as they are not permitted to charge admission and, in any event, crowds of more than 100 are rare in club hockey outside of cup finals.

The schoolgirl issue is not relevant In Leinster as they play their hockey midweek and there is also a significant number of players and coaches in this part of the world who are school teachers.

Pegasus coach Michelle Rainey is one of them and she echoes the concerns of other clubs in that regard while being open to persuasion at the Ulster forum on Monday week.

“My two concerns remain cost and impact on school players and coaches. Changes would have to be considered there and the ramifications considered.” she suggested.

“I know for sure there’ll be no more curriculum time or money available within schools in the north for the next number of years so to move from a Saturday morning slot is not feasible.

“I would also need to consider whether or not this will dilute the standard of hockey for the vast majority of players in the province or enhance it – the jury is out at present – it seems top teams might benefit but I am not sure if rest will.

“The costs of travel are high despite them (the IHA) saying it’s mainly only to next province distance wise – there is still diesel and food to be paid for - and there are implications for investment in time away from home for mums and wives.

“In saying all that, if I were to be convinced that this were to improve the game for the majority concerned then I’m open minded and I will go to the Forum on the 24th and listen.”

Ards manager Phil Mills, whose views do not necessarily represent his club, sees both positives and negatives and feels the proposals should not be rushed through.

“Personally, I think there are a number of positives about a potential all-Ireland League, and I’m sure they have been voiced eloquently by others.” he added.

“Those include the higher standard of IHL with the best teams playing each other consistently should help raise the standard all round.

“The new IHL could be used to help raise the profile of the game and it should help raise the standards of the players involved in the national squad and could lead to more competitive provincial leagues.

“But some issues as I see them are as follows: the time commitment will be higher, with more travelling.

“And the cost will go up for all clubs - for those who do not own their own grounds, it’s already a significant annual cost just to be able to play and train.

“Additional travel and hotel costs are an increased burden on both clubs and individuals.”

Mills also has concerns over the schoolgirl issue although his club would be less seriousaly affected than others in that regard.

“A problem for Ulster in particular is the fact that school hockey is played on a Saturday morning, effectively ruling teachers and schoolgirls out of away matches, or in them arriving late.

“We were impacted by this in the Irish Cup this year when our first choice left back had a school commitment in the morning, arrived late for the game in Dublin, and was straight onto the pitch having already played a full match shortly before.

“There were also a couple of teachers similarly late. That was far from ideal.

“This season, it has only been one match, and with IHL being at the end of the season it should be less of an issue, as most school hockey should be over but with a full season IHL, this would be a regular issue.”

The two student sides, Queen’s and the Ulster Elks, have fewer schoolgirl and schoolteacher isues and have no ‘ground rent’ to pay. Next week we will hear their views on the proposals.