Hard to understand all the furore around the size of the transfer fee bringing Lee Bonis from Portadown to Larne.
Certainly it’s unusual for the Irish League, as was the reported £120,000 which changed hands between Glentoran and Ballymena United for Shay McCartan, but isn’t it a positive sign the league is headed in a good direction?
Larne enjoyed a financial windfall thanks to their brilliant run in Europe early season, and while all of that money can’t possibly form a transfer fund, it certainly allows the club to increase budget. Coupled with the support of a wealthy benefactor it's not a deal that’s going to bankrupt the east Antrim outfit any time soon... even if it doesn’t work out.
And the cash remains in local football’s money-go-round....?
What’s not to like? Greater rewards for playing European football and new investors coming into the league in the form of Kenny Bruce and Ali Pour. It’s exactly the type of things local football has been dreaming of for years?
But it’s become a bit of a “Great! What now?” moment as fans, players and administrators struggle to get their heads around the league’s recent growth spurt. As more revenue flows into local football than ever before so the league becomes increasingly competitive and crowds go up. Again... what’s not to like?
Observers are hesitant, wondering or not if it’s a positive development or not. The Caution, Change-averse Barometer spins out of control when a club ‘splashes the cash’ on a player as Larne just have. Successful, conservative clubs don’t like it, and the less successful, smaller, clubs scratch their heads and wonder how they will ever be able to compete.
It just so happens, it’s the way of the modern football world and possibly, we in Northern Ireland, are finally getting the chance to catch on.
And so to the doubters... how can a significant influx of revenue be negative for the local game?
Admittedly there is history. It happened in the late 80’s, early 90’s when Ted Clarke last upset the applecart of an ultra-conservative Irish League. Before Ted’s financial incursion every team played each other twice and Linfield were awarded the Gibson Cup. On a few occasions, Glentoran were able to interrupt blue dominance, but not too often.
Back then some clubs certainly did over-stretch financially. The County Down pair, Ards and Bangor are prime examples. Neither has ever properly recovered even now, although at least they do still exist, Ards despite having to sell off their Castlereagh Park stadium.
Newry Town and Omagh Town were not so lucky however, although Newry under the guise of Newry City AFC look like bringing Irish League football back to the border town next season. Top-level football in Omagh is a million miles away and you must wonder will it ever return? The town is not even represented at the Intermediate level any longer.
Just over a decade later a similar fate befell Glentoran. The gates were locked at the Oval. Only the intervention of Ali Pour has made the East Belfast (relative) giant competitive again.
Everyone seems to have had their say. Gerard Lyttle, manager of Northern Ireland’s u19 and u17’s, has been positive about developments, praising clubs for going full-time but expressed concerns that it could hamper young players from progressing. Understandable given his current remit.
Others such as Gareth McAuley have also touched on this, suggesting Irish League clubs will demand higher transfer fees for players in the face of cross-channel or European interest. The inference is a local club could price a youngster out of a move.
But why shouldn’t they demand larger fees, if local clubs are valuing their player enough to pay for his development with full-time wages? They’d be transferring a full-professional, not a part-timer as in the past, someone who should adapt more quickly to new surroundings.
Exactly the same development happened in Scandanavian football long ago, we’re just about 40 years behind.
Traditionally clubs from Sweden, Norway and Denmark have all been able to command significantly higher transfer fees than our local part-time league. It wasn’t always like that certainly in respect of the latter two, but it’s actually one key component domestic, professional football in those countries has been built upon; the ability to develop players and recycle funds.
A sensible model for Irish football? It’s difficult to argue otherwise.
Even the concern around ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’, clubs spending money they don’t have, must surely be tempered in modern times. The Irish League is not exempt from FIFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, something that didn’t exist when the above catalogue of troubled, local clubs descended into financial difficulty.
And as well, is it too naive to suggest lessons have surely been learned, given the long, arduous and uncertain journey back to solvency those surviving clubs were forced to undertake?
In the mould of their manager Tiernan Lynch, Larne FC is an ambitious football club and should not be faulted for that. Portadown once upon a time the financial power, have now fallen on harder times. The deal that took Lee Bonis from one to the other appears to suit both parties these days.
Linfield and Glentoran, if seriously interested in the player (word on the street says each were) have lost out. But perhaps each felt the fee was too high for a player yet to really prove himself in the country’s top league. Again, fair enough, the way of the world.
Larne are buying tenacity, rawness and a passionate worker, one who will bring commitment to the cause and they hope... potential.
Only time will tell if that potential is realized. But let’s not worry too much about the fee.