The Football League of Northern Ireland has warned Irish League clubs not to make unreasonable demands in their requests for financial assistance under the sub-regional stadium programme.
IFL and Irish Football Association leaders have asked politicians for assurances that long-awaited and much-needed investments will be released, but no progress will be made unless NI’s executive power is restored.
Although the commitment was made 11 years ago, a £36.2 million program to improve regional football grounds in Northern Ireland remains in place, but it is widely recognized in football that much more money is needed to upgrade grounds .
During the latest Stormont deadlock, polls are being held to determine how much funding is needed, and NIFL COO Stephen Mills urged clubs to think about what they need, not what they want.
“There is work going on in the background,” Mills said. “Perhaps this is someone’s delaying tactic, but there is a lack of understanding of what is really needed.
“The facilities are being checked even though we know £36m is not enough. This was not enough 10 years ago, and certainly not enough now.
“Studies are currently underway and will hopefully be completed within the next two months. There is a difference between what clubs want and what they need. Perhaps some are ahead of themselves, while the emphasis should be on what we really need.
“But it takes political will to release funding.”
NIFL CEO Gerard Lawlor said he remains hopeful that funding will be made available in the future, but his frustration deepened.
“This is a constant area of frustration, anxiety and anger for me. It’s not all dead yet, but from my point of view, I’m disappointed that we continue to go in circles,” said the former chairman of Cliftonville.
“We will always defend our interests and will do our best.
“Faith is a bit like respect, you earn it, you can’t buy it. At this point in time, we have lost faith after false dawns, but faith will return when the money is released.
“It is difficult to have such faith, but the door is open for people to build this faith with us. I sincerely believe that someday something will happen, but the challenge is to give our clubs the help they need.”
Lawlor also believes that discussions about possible seasonal changes in the Irish League could be revived, but he acknowledges opinions are divided.
Arguments over whether the calendar should include the summer months have raged for years, but due to a lack of consensus, negotiations have come to nothing.
The NIFL set up a working group to look into the matter, but negotiations stalled due to a lack of support for radical change.
One of the arguments for changing the match calendar was to raise clubs’ hopes of success in Europe, and as Linfield knocks on the door of the group stage, Lawlor feels that continental luck could spark new controversy.
He argued: “In the Premier League, it’s a topic that leads to a 6-6 or 7-5 split depending on who you talk to at the club. But I think there should be a conversation. Four or five years ago, I probably wasn’t in favor of change, but I think we have opportunities.
“I think we have learned a lot during the pandemic. The situation with Covid-19 was good for us, as people stopped going to cross-channel games and saw the game on their doorstep.
“Bar stool fans came to watch the Irish League instead of watching Manchester United or Liverpool.
“I think there are opportunities in the summer when these teams don’t play.
“We set up a working group to push this issue forward but it didn’t lead to anything, it may have stalled now, but after the European campaigns we have to analyze their performance and see how it fits into the calendar.
“I think this is a conversation that we will need to resurrect in the coming weeks or months to try to move it forward one way or another.”
Meanwhile, Coleraine signed Michael McCrudden and Conor McDermott for an undisclosed fee.
McDermott signed a two-year contract and joined the team after a three-year stint with Cliftonville.
Coleraine boss Oran Kearney said: “Conor is only 24 but you can see he’s a really good defender. He is really good in attack and can play both on the right flank and as a central defender.
“It gives us that flexibility and cover for Lyndon (Kane) that we probably haven’t had in a while. I think he’s in good shape but he needs to get back on the pitch and get a few minutes to spare.”
The Bannsiders also negotiated a deal with McCrudden.