With another win in 2017 and closest challengers Linfield only managing a draw with lowly Portadown, Crusaders seem destined for a well-earned third straight league title. Nine points clear with nine games to go and only an uncharacteristic collapse from a side unbeaten in the League in 2017 will prevent a historic achievement for a side who until two seasons ago hadn’t won the league this millennium.
However, a quick glance at the other leagues of the British Isles (bar the English top division, awash with the cash of Prince’s from dictatorships) and a problem is emerging which is the dominance of one team over the entire pyramid. Down in the Republic, Dundalk have run away with the league three times in a row and with their financial boon from some European results, the roughly €3m they received gives them a huge financial gulf over other teams (like fan owned Cork City) who wish to compete.
Celtic look set to continue to dominate the Scottish Premiership - whose only bright spark is provided by the growing transition to community ownership - until European performances from the Hoops improve to such a level to give Rangers a way back into the Champions League.
Worst of all is the heavily diminished Welsh League, shorn of it’s strongest sides from the start, who suffer from a franchise in England having won the league every season for the last five years (soon to be six) thanks to money ‘earned’ from losing every 2nd round Champions League qualifying match they have. Why the Welsh continue to allow some franchise to cripple their league is a mystery.
Although some similarities are emerging in Northern Ireland, it’s important to add further context. Firstly, attendances across the division are improving year-on-year. In fact, this seasons average stands at over 1,000, which is the highest since records began being counter in 2008. Crusaders have now matched the traditional giants of Glentoran by averaging over 1,500, Linfield have held their plus 2,000 crowds and have improved over the last three seasons whilst Cliftonville have held over 1,000 despite being out of title contention for three campaigns.
Outside of Belfast, Ards (despite still being marooned in Bangor) are posting healthy crowds in their first season back in the league and Portadown have held onto their crowds and will hopefully be back after a year of rebuilding in the Championship next season.
So, with attendances upwardly mobile and well distributed throughout the league, perhaps we shouldn’t worry just yet. Also, the distribution of the Irish Cup (with three teams winning the tournament in the past six years) has meant that fans of teams who haven’t been competing for the league have still had something to shout about.
In fact, Crusaders rise and recent wins may perhaps be seen in the same way as Cliftonville’s success earlier in the decade can be viewed, as a move away from the dominance of Irish League football by Linfield, which has left the league in a much healthier state.
Overall then, attendances across the league are up and although the continuing homelessness of Ards (combined with recent financial issues at Portadown) show the need for continuing improvement in football governance, the Irish League appears to be enjoying a renaissance. Long may it continue.