Gerard Lawlor concedes Championship clubs feel neglected

Gerard Lawlor.Gerard Lawlor.
Gerard Lawlor.
Newly appointed chief executive of the Northern Ireland Football League Gerard Lawlor admits that some Championship clubs have been neglected and recognises it’s now his and the NIFL’s job to talk to those clubs.

The former Cliftonville chairman, who becomes the league’s first ever Chief Executive Officer, takes up his new role later in the year and he wants to ensure all 41 clubs in NI Football League will get his support, as he wants to make the NIFL product a success.

His appointment comes after NIFL decided to restructure their senior management following managing director Andrew Johnston’s exit in December.

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The Belfast native also hopes to hold meetings with every club from the Women’s Premiership to the top flight clubs.

“NIFL is 41 clubs and I have chatted so some Championship clubs and we have Championship clubs who don’t feel loved and they don’t feel wanted I think and they feel neglected, so we have got to address that and we have got to sit down with them,” he insisted.

“We have to reassure them and resolve any issues that they have and PIL (Premier Intermediate League) clubs are the same. Look, anything that has gone on before has to be water under the bridge as far as I’m concerned and I have said this repeatedly, we aren’t there just to govern clubs, we are there in my opinion to serve clubs.

“We are there to service clubs and service their needs and make life easy for them. Help them to develop, progress, because if they progress then NIFL progresses.

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“I think at the minute we have to listen to Championship clubs and all clubs’ concerns and one of the things that I have got to do is try to find in 41 meetings in the first number of weeks, to listen to 41 points of view and listen to all their concerns and their problems and I just hope the clubs give me a chance.

“I’m no longer coming as Gerard Lawlor the chairman of Cliftonville, because I had vested interests then, but now I’m coming as Gerard Lawlor as the NIFL Chief Executive and I don’t have one club to look after now I have 41 clubs to look after and each of them deserve my undivided attention as much as I can.”

Institute chairman Bill Anderson only last week wanted assurances that the 2021/22 Championship season would be played to a finish and Lawlor admits the indications he’s getting are positive ones that their campaign will not be effected this time around.

“The indications that we have been getting is that the Championship would be OK if we did have further breakdowns but I can only go with what I’m being told,” he explained.

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“We have made all the representations, we did everything that we could do and I can understand and fully respect the frustrations of that league, but it’s not something that I’m ultimately envisaging as a problem at the minute.

“However if we do then we’ll cross it, listen to the clubs and we have got to fight for them and work, sit down and develop the Championship as much as we can.”

Lawlor certainly brings plenty of experience to the table having worked in local football for over 20 years, with his roles including chairman of both NIFL and Cliftonville and a member of the IFA board.

At club level, Lawlor has held multiple roles with the Solitude men, ranging from community relations officer to board member and then eventually to chairman, a role he has held since June 2008 and will step down from it at the end of next month.

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The livelong Reds supporter, who is the head of operations at the Grand Opera House in Belfast and was part of their team that delivered a substantial £13m restoration project, also conceded that he was shocked that the second tier in Northern Irish football didn’t have a sponsor and rectifying that was a big prior as far as he was concerned and while he doesn’t take up his post until later in the year, he’s already putting plans in place for the future.

“I am fully aware of the challenges ahead and we will face them head on. I have always been proud to be a part of NIFL and to now be given the trust of the board and opportunity to drive it forward is an honour,” he conceded.

“My focus is that together with all the NIFL member clubs, both male and female, we not only govern but also support and serve to create a more professional, sustainable organisation.

“Look there’s an enormous portfolio of work to be done and I’m not going to do it in my first six months to a year, it’s going to take a lot of time, but the priorities are can we move summer football on one way or another and as far as the Championship is concerned it’s a division at the moment, which was just brought to my intention is that they don’t have a sponsor and that has to be a first priority.

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“For us to have the second league in Northern Ireland without a sponsor is just not acceptable in my opinion and while I haven’t started that’s something we are currently actively working on it. So look I suppose like any family there’s a number of broken relationships and hopefully we can heal those relationships.

“We need a strategy, we need a business plan and a plan going forward that suits everyone or there’s something in it for everyone. I don’t know if we are ever going to get a plan that suits every club, but as long as everyone gets something and gets a little bit of progression and isn’t giving up everything then we have a chance.

“The Championship is as competitive as the Premiership and it can’t be forgotten about. The Ladies game needs developed, so look there’s a lot of hard work to be done and I hope that I’m good enough to do it.

“It won’t be for the lack of desire or a lack of willingness, but I can’t do it on my own and I can only do it if I have 41 people or a large, large majority of them all pulling in the right direction.”