It is not popular to say it, but the fact is the Irish League has been in the doldrums for some time. In 1970/71, Arsenal’s double-winning team was defeated in European competition by Glentoran at the Oval, only winning the tie 3-1 on aggregate. By 1990/91, Irish League teams were struggling to beat anyone at all. With no disrespect to the Faroe Islands, the fact that a country with a population less than Bangor’s can produce club teams fit to compete against the best Northern Ireland has to offer is embarrassing.
There are many reasons for this, but one obvious one this century has been the lack of competition. Since Portadown’s win in 2002, only Linfield (usually) and Glentoran (rarely) had won the title. Linfield even completed six doubles (more than were achieved in England during the entire first century of league football) in seven seasons. Average attendances sunk into the hundreds rather than thousands as people turned away from going to dilapidated grounds to watch a foregone conclusion, not least because there was another option of the occasional trip to the Premier League or Old Firm.
North Belfast has the potential to change that, with two superb clubs suddenly emerging as the two top teams. Crusaders, already a reasonable option for a family day out, won the all-Ireland Setanta Cup last season and has fantastic, community-based proposals for a new ground in the coming years. It has also led the way with a ground-breaking, all-weather 3G pitch – at a time when the IFA cannot confirm whether even the new Windsor Park will have undersoil heating! On the other side of the road is Cliftonville, with a fine group of players and officials who have completed a thoroughly deserved Premiership win with more possibly to come. That the two clubs so obviously get on, in the context of North Belfast and not least what happened a couple of months back when their derby fixture had to be called off, is a huge example not just to the Irish League but to Northern Ireland.
Cliftonville’s title win is good news for the Irish League in the obvious way that it provides serious competition for the ‘Big Two’. However, both North Belfast clubs have demonstrated the type of innovation required – on and, just as importantly, off the field – to make Irish League football attractive once again. Just get to know some of the officials and some of the players and you do see so much that is good about the new Northern Ireland, despite recent setbacks. There is now a real chance to kick-start the Irish League, and with it the local game generally, in a way which will bring significant benefits not just at a sporting level but also to local communities.