The blog you’re about to read deals with something I know very little about. "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose", mutter regular readers. On this occasion I have an excuse for ignorance though, as my chosen topic is the Irish Football Association’s planned invitational league. You see, the IFA itself has yet to actually decide the format next season’s senior domestic league will assume, despite the fact that it will kick off in less than four months time.
This would be rather astonishing in any other UEFA jurisdiction, but in Northern Ireland it has barely raised an eyebrow, because frankly we are accustomed to bungling and confusion from our governing body. They have announced a broad intention that there should be 12 teams in the new league and that those teams will be selected from a group of 14 which have been granted ‘domestic licences’ by the IFA. Otherwise the details are sketchy and have not yet been finalised.
A clue as to the league’s composition came on 23 April when the fourteen licences were granted, in typical IFA fashion after the initial stadium criteria needed to secure them had been dropped. Three current Irish Premier League teams failed to gain a licence – these teams were Larne, Limavady and Armagh. Alongside Institute these three teams finished outside the top 12 this season, although the IFA maintain that the criteria for granting a licence are financial, coaching and stadium based (although this requirement was waived this year), and not determined by achievement on the field or geographical location. The top 12 IPL teams gained licences, as did Institute and First Division Bangor.
It has not yet been determined whether the final twelve teams will be invited by reference to their final positions in this season’s league table (which would be a relatively simple and logical solution) or whether different criteria will be applied to differentiate between them. Donegal Celtic reached the Premier League in 2005-2006 after Omagh Town went out of business and were heralded in some quarters as successors to the famous old club Belfast Celtic, which dissolved in 1949. The erroneous idea that Celtic are ‘good for the Irish League’ seemed to secure them a licence despite their lack of infrastructure. A similar misapprehension exists that the league ‘needs’ a team from Northern Ireland’s second city. It will be interesting to see whether Institute are crow-barred into the league in order to satisfy the idea that the league must have a team from Derry.
To add to the confusion, a team which the league does actually ‘need’ have put their inclusion in doubt by submitting a late application to be part of the new league. In the recent past, Portadown have a record on the pitch only eclipsed by Belfast’s Big Two of Glentoran and Linfield. In relative terms they have a large support and in addition are currently extensively refurbishing their ground. Now it seems that participation in senior football next year is by no means assured. Portadown are citing traffic delays as the reason for late submission and a decision is likely to be made today.
Other uncertainties hang over the new set up. It remains undecided whether automatic promotion and relegation will operate from the revamped second tier. This may well be dependent on the successful club(s) holding a licence. Will these licences be achievable? Will ground criteria be applied despite the IFA’s history of waiving such criteria? There are UEFA edicts demanding promotion and relegation as part of a league set-up if that league is to proffer qualification to European competition. How will the new league be formatted? It is suggested that 22 games would be too little if teams were to compete only home and away. Likewise, with Setanta commitments, 44 games would more than likely be too many. Splitting the league into two for the concluding months of the season has been suggested, but this system is unwieldy and yields a great many matches of little significance.
Already the invitational league has diminished local football by contriving to deny Larne a licence whilst DC and Institute have gained theirs. I don’t trust the IFA to implement their plans in a logical fashion or to instigate a system which is beneficial to all the league's clubs. Jack Grundie, a Linfield Trustee, has predictably been appointed chairman of the league and whatever format the IFA choose will doubtless follow the template his club favour.
Update: It looks like Portadown will not be in the new league after all. It will kick off without one of Northern Ireland's leading clubs. The Ports will appeal the decision.