By Simon Evans
LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland (Reuters) – While the political focus has been on the Irish border as part of the Brexit negotiations, the island’s soccer clubs are set to come together to discuss a plan to create a new ‘All-Ireland’ league.
Irish soccer has always been divided between the League of Ireland in the Republic and the Irish League (Northern Ireland Football League) in the North but a new consortium hopes to end the division in the sport.
Kerry businessman Kieran Lucid is heading a group, including former Ireland manager Brian Kerr and former English Football Association general secretary Alex Horne, which has been drawing up plans for a new structure that they have given the working title of the ‘All-Ireland League’.
Clubs from both sides of the border will meet in Dundalk on Thursday to discuss the plans and possible routes forward.
“I think there would be many benefits,” Lucid told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“From a fan interest points of view it would create some very exciting matches. You bring a larger population base, you would have 6.6 million people which is 1.2 million more than Scotland.”
“With that you will have finances coming into the game and with that you have many benefits in terms of facilities, so it becomes a better experience,” he said, noting that a better product would generate increased revenue.
“Denmark’s television deal is around 50 million euros where ours collectively is about half a million.”
Lucid, who says he has already had interest from a leading broadcaster, believes it would make clubs more competitive in Europe and allow them to gain from the resources that participation in the Champions League and Europa League can bring.
“In European football, if you have money, you can create money… you want to get to the virtuous cycle,” he said.
The plan would need backing of the clubs and the two national federations, as well as European governing body UEFA. It already has won the support of several club managers from each side of the border.
“There are winners all around, even UEFA would benefit as they have four big leagues in Europe and it will probably be good for them to see some consolidation from smaller leagues to try to be more competitive. I think everyone wins from this, I really do,” he said.
“This would come down to a discussion with UEFA who would hopefully view this as a positive step on an island where the game is struggling against GAA (Gaelic) games and rugby.”
The competition would be run by a company owned by the participating clubs. The plan is for a top tier division bringing together the leading clubs from both leagues and two regionally based second divisions with promotion and relegation at all levels.
Several sports in Ireland, including rugby union and golf, have long operated on an all-island basis.
One club in the North, Derry City, previously part of the Northern structure, has played south of the border since 1985.
Soccer in Ireland has struggled to compete with the popular Gaelic sports as well as rugby union. Many supporters on both sides of the border prefer to follow clubs in England’s Premier League and Scotland’s Rangers and Celtic also have significant fan bases.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge)