The exclusion of Donegal Celtic from the IFA’s new Invitational League has provided the icing on the cake for what has been a bit of an annus horribilis for the football authorities in the north in regards to their relationship with northern nationalists. Having first picked a fight with the nationalist community over the eligibility of Irish citizens to represent the Rep Ireland at international football level, the decision to dump the Irish Cup semi-finalists and team finishing 11th placed overall in the league in favour of First Division outfit, Bangor, has dismayed supporters of the club and rekindled not too distant memories of the lengthy battle fought by the club (and Lurgan Celtic) to secure membership of the League- which was only achieved in 2002 following a decision by the Equality Commission to support a court case against the IFA on grounds of discrimination. So should Donegal Celtic attempt to emulate Derry City and take to the Eircom League?Unfortunately for the Wee Hoops, it would appear that that particular ship has sailed. The growing professionalism of the Eircom League has led to a widening gulf emerging between the calibre of football on offer at local level between the two leagues in Ireland- with only Linfield appearing able to match the growing professionalism of the Eircom League. The launch of the new weekly programme, MNS, as well as regular live television coverage of matches, is further evidence of the positive strides being taken by the Football Association of Ireland to develop the game at local level. Indeed, were Donegal Celtic to even make enquiries about entry into the FAI structures, they may find themselves several tiers below the Premier Division, given the competition from developing clubs across the state.
Unfortunately, north of the border it appears that the IFA continues to rearrange the deck chairs, expanding to a 16 team league then contracting to a 12 team league in the space of a few years. The obvious problem remains the quality of the product on offer by the Irish Football Association. In an era in which SKY tv/ Setanta bring top quality Premiership/ SPL matches to our living rooms, and numerous airlines take hundreds on the small leap across the Sea to view the top teams at low costs in day return trips which allow for fans to eat their fry at home and return comfortably in time to visit the pub or kick the feet up for Saturday television, Irish soccer will continue to struggle.
And in that context, it becomes even more glaringly obvious that the IFA have made a blunder in excluding a team with the potential to bring a whole new audience to local football from their new Invitational League. Worse still, they have merely confirmed the negative perception of the footballing body within the northern nationalist community, a perception built on the harsh experiences of the small number of predominantly-nationalist supported soccer teams who participated in the northern league- and survived to tell the story.
The experiences of Belfast Celtic, Cliftonville, Derry City and Donegal Celtic within the northern footballing setup do not make happy reading. Belfast Celtic exited the league not long after a shocking sectarian attack onb its players at Windsor Park; Derry City’s experience eventually led to withdrawal from the league and, more happily, finding a place in the more progressive looking Football Association of Ireland setup; for years, Cliftonville were forced to hand Linfield the distinct advantage of having two home games versus the north Belfast Reds; even this season, with the club experiencing its best form since winning the title a decade ago, sectarianism reared its ugly head as the Manager was on the receiving end of a death threat days ahead of a Cup fixture with Linfield.
And then there’s the experience of Donegal Celtic. For years the club were denied access to the league, securing membership only weeks ahead of the commencement of a court case taken with the support of the Equality Commission against the football authorities.
Yet here was a club willing to go in for the long haul, taking the knocks and sticking at it in an effort to reach the highest tier of local football in the north. Having done precisely that, and having just finished their best ever season in local soccer, reaching the final four of the Gibson Cup competition and exceeding all expectations and finishing 11th in the league, it is only natural that the club, its players, official and supporters are somewhat stunned by yesterdays developments.
But have no doubt: the biggest losers in this affair are the Irish Football Association.