Crusaders goalkeeper Gerard Doherty has fully backed ‘exciting’ new proposals for an all-island league - claiming the sooner it comes to fruition the better it will be for Irish football.
It’s understood Irish League clubs have met with a group proposing the establishment of an all-island league, an idea which is being driven by Kerry-born entrepreneur Kieran Lucid and which involves former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr.
While no formal talks have taken place, reports suggest representatives of both the IFA and FAI have recently met those behind the proposal and further discussions are planned in the coming weeks.
Former Derry City captain Doherty, who has played in both leagues, has been a long-time advocate for a cross-border competition and believes the amalgamation of the Irish League and League of Ireland would breath new life into the game.
Having played for the Candy Stripes in the Setanta Cup and, indeed, in the 2012 final when the Brandywell club was beaten on penalties by Crusaders, Doherty has fond memories of those passionate clashes and bumper attendances.
And the Crues keeper is excited about the prospect of the two leagues combining once again, insisting it will give the local game, which he feels has gone stale, a fresh injection.
“It’s great to see,” said the experienced custodian. “From my point of view, I’ve spoken about this in the past. I’ve played in both leagues and it would be great to see the two merge together.
“I always look back at the Setanta Cup and the amount of fans at the games and the passion and I suppose they have looked at that as well.
“They’re obviously in the very early stages of it but from my point of view, the quicker they get this sorted the better.”
While an all-island league has an emotional pull for Doherty, he understands that the idea is a complicated one.
However, he reckons it’s a problem worth pursuing given the prospect of some mouth-watering fixtures he believes football fans will be largely in favour of.
“I suppose it’s a couple of years down the line from the Setanta Cup and society is better and there’s not as much madness surrounding the fixtures,” he said. “Institute have come to play at Brandywell and there’s never been any bother.
“So it’s been tried and tested a bit more.
“If you think of the likes of Linfield travelling to Shamrock Rovers, it’s only a couple of hours down the road and think about that for a fixture.
“Surely the fans are calling out for games like that?
“Maybe both of the leagues have gone a bit stale in the last few years.
“From a player’s point of view, even the last couple of years in the League of Ireland, you’re going up and down to the same places and you just want a change.
“The Setanta Cup was a breath of fresh air at the time and the quicker it can happen the better it will be for everybody.
“There’s probably never a perfect time for everyone involved. And there will always be a few doubters.
“But if you look at the bigger picture and the mess the whole north has been in with Brexit and you have to take into consideration about what’s going to happen after that. Everything will be up in the air.
“People are worrying about European places as well but, from what I hear, there seems to be a bit of advertising money involved which would cover costs and that’s guaranteed money.
“There’s a lot of things to iron out but I’m just glad, if it is Brian Kerr and someone else that’s come up with it, then he’s a 100 per cent football man.
“If the two leagues can combine and keep a competitive league then that would be amazing in my eyes.
“It’s all positive, people want to see good football matches and if you think of Crusaders going to Cork or Cliftonville going to Derry City, all I can see is big fixtures that would pop up and it would be great for the whole country.”
Another concern would be just how competitive the proposed league would be given the League of Ireland clubs had dominated the Setenta Cup competition.
However there’s a been a significant shift in the Irish League towards a full-time ethos, with clubs embracing professionalism.
The likes of Crusaders, Linfield and newly-promoted Larne have all taken steps in the right direction and Doherty believes it would only strengthen the Irish League clubs.
“I think it would be competitive,” he said. “You have to be realistic as well and if you look at our club, Crusaders, 90 per cent of our boys work as well and it’s tough.
“It’s not full-time as such, if you compare that to Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers and even Derry City, who are in a full-time set-up, then they will obviously have a bit of an advantage.
“But if the amalgamation of the two leagues does happen then that’s up to clubs, if they are getting sponsor money, to go out and attract players and pay them a decent wage and make them go full-time.
“I can only see it as a positive, it would be great.
“It’s about time there’s a bit of a buzz around the country.
“I’m sure it’s a complicated process they will have to go through but somebody has got the ball rolling already and have come up with good plans.
“If that’s just the start of talks then long may that continue, if it does take a year or two then that’s what it takes.
“As long as they have it right at the start and don’t rush into anything so it has to be scrapped and we’re back to square one.
“They have to hit the ground running with it and if it takes a year or two I’m sure everyone will settle for that.
“Personally I’d love it, it’s the only way forward.
“I’ve been saying that for years.”