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The English Game Is Destroying The Northern Irish Game

Friday 6th January 2012
Picture the scene. Its 1967 and over 30,000 people attended local Northern Irish side Glentoran's dream European Cup tie against Benfica at The Oval in East Belfast. The Glens drew the game 1-1, with legendary Portugese stiker Eusebio on target for the visitors. A 0-0 draw followed in the Estadio da Luz and Glentoran became the first ever team in European football to be knocked out of Europe on the away goal rule. We all know what Benfica did next, making the final to be beaten by Manchester United.

Then there was Crusaders in 1976. They lost just 2-0 at Anfield as Liverpool went on to pick up their first European Cup in May the next year. Northern Ireland has produced hugely talented players such as Sammy McIlroy, Norman Whiteside, Pat Jennings, Danny Blanchflower and of course George Best. Don't worry, I'm under no illusions. Football in Northern Ireland has never been wonderful - but it is sad to see how it has declined so much in recent times. But why?

Sport in Northern Ireland is thriving with 3 major golf winners in 18 months, Mark Allen in the top band of snooker, not to mention constant representation at the Olympics for GB. It's not even that football has declined, more people than ever are seen in football jerseys but not from the local game. The local game has fallen apart.

Attendances in some Irish Premier League matches have dropped to less than 100 people, marking a staggeringly drastic decline. Even the top teams such as Glentoran and Linfield find their attendances dropping between the 1000-2000 mark, which is unimpressive compared to even 5 or 10 years ago. Of course the credit crunch has had an effect, but personally I believe the growth of the English game in the current generation is destroying the Northern Irish one.

Take Soccer Saturday for instance. We all love Jeff Stelling, Kammy and the rest of the boys on our TVs every Saturday afternoon, but every fanatical football supporter watching TV at 3pm on a Saturday is one less in attendance at a local game. Too many people will choose sit in rather than go and support the local team. The introduction of live football on Sky has also had an effect. ‘Oh I'm not going to travel to the away match today because Man Utd are on at 5.00pm and I don't want to miss the first half'.

But this poses another question, can you really blame people? I mean, who wants to watch boring, poor standard football in freezing winter temperatures when you could be at home, laughing at Soccer Saturday whilst cheering on your English team? The standard of Irish League football has decreased emphatically. Again I feel the blame lies in the modern English game. Nowadays there are scouts everywhere, so no player anywhere in the world will go unnoticed. Take Matty Burrows for instance - he scored an injury time winner for Glentoran last season in a rubbish, cold game against Portadown in front of maybe 1,000 people. That famous back-heel flick goal now has over 5 million YouTube hits. Scouts from all over England came to watch him (too bad it was a total fluke).

Rory Donnelly is the current example. He scores a few belting goals that make BBC Sports Editor's Choice videos and suddenly Liverpool, Everton and Swansea want to sign him. He had only scored 9 league goals this season. Surely it makes more sense to let these players grow for a couple of years? What happens now is that Donnelly will play for Swansea Reserves for a while, then go on 2 or 3 loans to different clubs potentially playing in different positions, and eventually will Swansea decide if he's good enough or give him the boot. Liam Boyce, another Northern Irish striker, secured an amazing transfer to Werder Bremen 2 seasons ago, but now he hasn't kicked a ball in 18 months and failed a trial at Kilmarnock.

Not only do some players suffer from the effect of big teams grabbing at any talent, but our league suffers immensely. No longer do we talk of players coming through the league, as was the case with the likes of Blanchflower or Best. Look at the current Northern Ireland squad - Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird, Chris Brunt, Kyle Lafferty, Steven Davis all play in the top leagues but never represented in the Irish League. All the top clubs these days have academies in Northern Ireland to recruit from, Kenny Dalglish himself came over to oversee Liverpool's academy being set up in Belfast.

These issues I feel are mirrored in the lower leagues in English football too. People choose to watch Soccer Saturday and young talent such as Walcott, Chamberlain, Raheem Sterling etc are snapped up before the rest of us even know who they are. Then 3 years later they either make it big or get released as a damaged goods.

I don't particularly pose any solutions to these issues. I mean, there are benefits as well. I would never ever suggest cancelling football on TV or Soccer Saturday. Also, the financial boosts small clubs get from big signings helps the local game function so I try not to be too critical. The problem I see now however is a total decline of the local game and the foreseeable future is unfortunately looking very bleak.
Andy Jenkins
Northern Irish youth football coach, write regularly for my local football team, Glentoran's official website. Write the odd recreational article online too.

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