NIFL CEO Gerard Lawlor convinced forthcoming Premiership season will be the best one yet

NIFL chief Gerard Lawlor says that the presence of managers like Warren Feeney for the upcoming season is a big boost for the local league
NIFL chief Gerard Lawlor says that the presence of managers like Warren Feeney for the upcoming season is a big boost for the local league

Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) chief executive Gerard Lawlor is confident that this season’s Sports Direct Irish Premiership will be the “biggest and best” fans will have ever seen.

Speaking at Wednesday night’s launch of the upcoming season at Windsor Park, the tone from the CEO was a positive one on the whole.

“With over 450,000 fans attending games throughout last season, it was the most successful campaign to date. However, this year, I believe we can make it even better” the former Cliftonville chairman said.

“For us, having Sports Direct as the sponsor is a huge step forward. We are very thankful to Danske Bank, our partners last year, but they are very much a northern Irish business.  

“With our new partners, they are recognised throughout the whole UK and that helps us get our message further and more successfully sell our product.”

Despite the optimistic tone portrayed, Lawlor was somewhat irked by the lack of movement with clubs on the failure to follow through on Sunday football being a regular feature, as well as more use of kick-off times spread throughout the weekend.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach agreement on the way forward with Sunday football and that was disappointing,” he added.  

“At present, almost all of our games are played at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, but if we look at our neighbours in the League of Ireland not to mention the English Premier League, we can see how they have modernised to maximise the potential coverage of the game by stretching the games from a Friday night to a Monday evening.

“Of course, it’s not a case of one-size-fits-all. 

“For instance, Linfield would like every game at 3pm on a Saturday; Larne would like the majority of games on a Friday night and Portadown have found the sweet spot for attendances to be the 5.30pm evening game on a Saturday.  So we need to work with clubs to make that work.”

The NIFL chief was optimistic of the pull of the Irish League, reflected on the managers in place for the season ahead, who may have decided to stay in Britain to ply their trade in years gone by.

“When you look at the calibre of managers this year, it speaks volumes,” Lawlor said. 

“To have Warren Feeney [Glentoran], Jim Magilton [Cliftonville] and David Healy [Linfiled] all in place for the season ahead, it is something clubs would never have imagined they could have five or even 10 years ago”.

Meanwhile, there will be no opening weekend match-ups between Cliftonville and Linfield or Crusaders and Carrick Rangers.  

With Linfield and Crusaders away in Europa Conference League action next Thursday, there would not have been ample recovery time for a Saturday kick-off, and no agreement could be reached for Sunday fixtures, rather ironically, given that both sides requesting the change had voted against Sunday football in the NIFL poll.  

Therefore, the games have been rearranged for Tuesday evening, August 22.