Sean Connor: A seismic change in Irish League football is well underway
'ALL changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.’
It’s a line from a W.B Yeats poem which sits deep in the reservoir of my memory, placed there by Brother Jennings, an enthusiastic, at times humorous, but a very serious English teacher.
He encouraged us all to read deep into our work, see the meaning behind the words on the page. To this day I still have my favourite poems and poets. I even attempted to write a few.
So where am I going with this? I’m sure it seems a bit weird and no relation to football or sports. However, I was thinking about the changes to the game here over the past 18 months or more, the challenges we have all had to deal with (the pandemic, no fans, Brexit etc), finally the changes to the metrics and finances of the game, and this line from Yeats came to mind.
With the investment that is being made at Crusaders, Glentoran, Larne, Linfield and seeing all these clubs pushing back the barriers in terms of recruitment and the contracts they are offering, a seismic change is well underway. The top clubs have altered their operational methods, marketing, sponsorship and brand building.
All of the four clubs above have engaged with a full-time model, or a form of this model, over the past few seasons. In doing so they have raised the bar right across the spectrum of the game here. Only a matter of days ago David Jeffrey talked about how he found the challenge exciting. David mentioned how it was making him, his staff and club work smarter and think about a different game-plan in terms of their recruitment and the type of players they are looking to bring into the club.
Ballymena have revised their thinking around their overall strategy and long-term approach to the new landscape that is the Irish League. The reported £100,000 they got for Shay McCartan will certainly help with his efforts. David, like those at Coleraine and Cliftonville, are all having to develop new strategies and innovative methods to keep them competitive within the current Premiership campaign, just getting underway.
All of these clubs will be fighting for a top six birth and a chance of qualification for European competition, where the financial rewards can help develop their clubs even quicker.
It is not just the clubs listed above that have had to adjust and adapt their models to compete or just to survive in the top flight. All of the Premiership clubs have invested in their squads, with certain players who were at the now full-time clubs not wanting, or able, to go full-time for a myriad of reasons, finding their way to the other clubs within the league.
Glenavon took advantage of this when they signed a number of key players from Linfield, Andy Waterworth being the big one. Some of these players have even dropped down to the Championship, Howard Beverland moving from Coleraine to Ballyclare. This has resulted in the quality of player improving at all the clubs. More importantly, it has forced many clubs to increase their financial investment in their squads.
The reality is the Premiership is now divided into three distinct groups, The top six clubs, then the next three who will survive easily, and finally the bottom three who will be involved in a relegation battle, simply down to the fact that their budget precludes them from competing at the top end of the Premiership.
So, what is required from those clubs outside of the big spending four – Crusaders, Glentoran, Larne and Linfield. We hear all about the overly used jargon ‘thinking outside the box’ but what does this really mean? For me it is an overused phrase that lacks authenticity and direction. It is a rambling piece of management speak, both pretentious and dangerous, as it is seen as a panacea to those who really do not want to look or work hard for solutions.
What is required by all those involved in the clubs outside the big four is an honest realisation that the dynamics of the local game has changed, the old order and way of operating is gone, left in the fog of history.
There is now a need for tough minds, epitomised by incisive thinking, frank reflection and decisive decision making. Those clubs who refuse to accept that nothing has changed will be left behind with the smoke of legends. Clubs must now be engaging in hard and honest thinking when it comes to their vision they have for the future. New theories must be adapted to enable them to achieve that future.
They must accept the challenge to compete at the top level in the game and adjust the way they operate, maybe accepting short-term pain for a longer-term development of the team and club.
Some clubs have started, as already mentioned Ballymena, Glenavon et al. Portadown have committed to their manager with a five year contract and developed a youthful squad, supplemented by some key experienced signing and the utilisation of the loan market with clubs in England. Likewise at Warrenpoint Town, they have embraced the geographical location to bring players in with League of Ireland experience. It is happening and those clubs at the lower end of the Premiership are changing their models and working hard to compete and stay in the Premiership.
For me the new dynamics, created by the full time clubs will lead to many positive changes to the game, some of these benefits may take time to emerge. They will eventually divulge themselves and what I believe we will see is a better game, better prepared players, physically, psychologically and emotionally. Our clubs will see the attainment of European football well into the winter and beyond as a reality. We will see more players like Shayne Lavery, returning to the league, improving and moving on to bigger and better leagues and clubs.
The improvements to our game will not be isolated to the playing side of the game. Our coaches will improve, they will embrace new methodologies. Our administrators will become more professional and the business acumen at clubs will develop and improve to match what is happening on the field of play.
Finally, but not least, the fans experience with the game will improve. Clubs will start to grow and develop within their local community. Just as Larne are winning and building on the field, so is the confidence in local business and pride in the town growing, as the club does. Here is an example of the change I am talking about, which others must follow or risk being left behind.
In his book ‘The Will to Power’, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, explained how, when we are going through a period of suffering, it can lead us to fulfilment and self-improvement. He explains that it is only when we are taken out of our comfort zone that we truly learn about ourselves and what we are capable of. This is true of life in general, but very apt with regards to professional sport and the current uncomfortable position those clubs outside of the top six in the Premiership, and many Championship clubs (aspiring to get there), find themselves in.
Yes all has changed, changed utterly, but it is also beautiful to see the game we all love, grow and develop at such a frantic pace. Those who accept the challenge will survive and find their position within the game. Those who are intimidated will struggle, maybe perish,
Yes, a terrible beauty is born!