Time to give serious consideration to an all-Ireland league: Cliftonville boss Paddy McLaughlin
Europa League Qualifying Round One, first leg: Cliftonville v FK Haugesund (tonight, Solitude, 7.45pm)
CLIFTONVILLE boss Paddy McLaughlin has backed calls for an all-Ireland league and a calendar shift to summer football.
Speaking ahead of tonight's Europa League Round One qualifier first leg tie with Norwegian side FK Haugesund at Solitude, McLaughlin also believes going full-time would improve the performances of Irish League clubs in Europe.
Citing the success of the League of Ireland moving to summer football since 2003 and their growth on the European stage, the former Derry City defender said: “Summer football definitely boosts attendances and pitches are in better condition too.
“I understand some Irish League clubs might want to stay the way they are out of tradition and obviously the festive period is a big thing for Irish League football.
“But if the league wants to progress they need to consider summer football and an All-Ireland league. It needs to be a long-term plan; it can't be just for a year or two. Serious consideration is required.”
Proposals and a financial plan for an all-island league have already been mooted.
Last month, The Irish News revealed a working group had been set up to look into the viability of a new league with former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr and hi-tech businessman Kieran Lucid key players in the ambitious project.
“The ideal scenario would be an All-Ireland league, summer football and everybody going full-time,” added McLaughlin.
“I think it would be brilliant and it would definitely enhance teams' chances in Europe (as it stands the Irish League will lose a European place next season due to poor a co-efficient). That's where the money is and people will want to tap into that market.”
Following their 4-0 aggregate win over Welsh outfit Barry Town in last week's opening Europa League qualifier, the north Belfast club pocketed a further £200,000.
“The extra money for getting through the last round is a massive boost to the club especially when you see the investment that is coming into the Irish League,” McLaughlin noted.
“That prize money is a massive lift right across the club.”
Tonight, FK Haugesund represent a significant step-up in class from Barry Town, although the Norwegians – sitting mid-table in the country's top flight league – suffered a 4-1 home defeat to fourth-placed Valerenga last time out.
However, two seasons ago, they thrashed Coleraine 7-0 after the Bannsiders held them scoreless in the first leg at Ballycastle Road.
“I was speaking to a few of the Coleraine boys who played against them a couple of years ago and they said they were as good an opposition as they've played.
“They will be strong favourites to progress but we don't mind that,” insisted McLaughlin.
“We've worn the underdog tag before and done well. It will be tough but nothing's impossible. If we keep the first leg tie alive you never what can happen over there. And we have a forward line that is capable of scoring against any opposition.
“But if the Red Army are out in force as they were in the end of season play-offs and against Barry Town it can make it uncomfortable for any opposition.”
On FK Haugesund's official website they have posted a ‘Cliftonville FC for Dummies' which provides quite an in-depth history of their part-time opponents tonight.
McLaughlin will be looking for a similar approach to last week's convincing dismissal of Barry Town where new signings Conor McDermott and Ronan Doherty caught the eye for the Reds.
“The win over Barry Town last week was reward for all the hard work the players have put in having their holidays cut short and in some cases changed their holiday plans… That is some dedication for our players who are part-time footballers.”