Is Sky Sports the limit for exasperated Northern Ireland fans?

Any Northern Ireland fan who suffered through the drudgery and ignominy of becoming “that team that can’t score a goal” must now feel that they are living in a positively radiant utopia where the sun always shines and victories fall from the branches of trees. After all, we’ve put England, Spain and Sweden to the sword at that magical old ground Windsor Park. So with the acceleration of the national team’s profile it was always inevitable that expectations among supporters would rise. Unfortunately the optimism of the fans has often come to logger-heads with the increasingly unpopular decision-making of the IFA. Many of the most paranoid Northern Ireland supporters see recent health and safety issues at Windsor as being a ploy by the governing body to force the Maze project through to official inception. The stadium debate has proved extremely controversial and to be fair it’s not hard to see why. There are better sites in Belfast for the proposed stadium to be built and the capital city has better facilities for people attending matches. Actually, it has facilities full-stop. Sometimes however you have to trust the people with power. The IFA may have lost friends over the new ground but might argue that some of their best decisions have come about when they have bypassed the wishes of the fans and used their heads rather than their hearts. For example not many people talk anymore about the minor outcry that occurred when Lawrie Sanchez was unveiled as Northern Ireland manager in January 2004 owing to the nostalgic desire among many of the green and white army for another parochial appointment. The IFA pulled off a spectacular coup by obtaining Sanchez’s services and he gave local football the shot in the arm that it had desperately needed for so long. His success and popularity was highlighted by the support he received throughout the acrimonious and abhorrent abuse he had inflicted upon him by certain media pundits after the 0-3 defeat to Iceland in September last year. The respect that the fans had, and still have, for Lawrie means that he often acted as a buffer in the increasingly sour interactions between the IFA and the supporters.

Still smarting from the constant stadium dilemma some of the green and white army were dismayed at the end of April to learn that the IFA had sold the rights to televise international home games to Sky Sports meaning that watching matches on television would be less obtainable than on their previous home, BBC NI. Again the IFA had on the surface, used their heads, with the deal promising a tidy £10m for the body over four years. President Jim Boyce noted the reality of living in a commercial world. To all intents and purposes he is right. Northern Ireland football cannot perpetually exist in a nostalgic but insular past. The economic benefits of television rights are plain to see and those in the football world who have failed to embrace the commercial modernisation of the game over the past fifteen years have often fallen by the wayside, never to recover. This cannot happen to Northern Ireland if the team and local football are to thrive. Sky Sports is now the gold standard in sport broadcasting and while we enjoyed listening to Jackie and the boys in the studio on the BBC in days gone by there comes a time to break with the past and move to pastures new. Although the majority of Northern Ireland fans seem cautiously optimistic about the Sky deal, other supporters have complained about being “squeezed out” by the transfer of coverage. This doesn’t convince – the majority of generic Northern Ireland fans support an English team (for this unfortunate author that means watching Nottingham Forest with his hands over his eyes) and if they don’t have Sky at home, or can’t afford to travel over to England at the weekend, they’ll converge at their local pub where the landlord will more than likely have Sky Sports on plasma televisions. Admittedly the elderly and geographically isolated will suffer and that’s where the decision over broadcasting rights becomes questionable. That’s not where the concern ends however. Now that Lawrie has gone, the future is less determinable.

Will the Northern Ireland who beat the giants of Europe still be able to sustain the momentum that has rewarded them with such incredible progress? As any Republic of Ireland fan will currently tell you, success at international level is extremely transient; especially for a nation of our size What if the talismanic David Healy fell foul of a long-term injury such as the knee problems that have disrupted much of Michael Owen’s Newcastle career? Whereas Owen’s void in the England team has been filled with varying degrees of success by Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe and David Nugent Northern Ireland has a much smaller pool of players from which to call upon. If the bottom falls out of these glory days we will once again become an unmarketable product and the BBC, feeling slighted over being bypassed with the new deal, may not be so quick to take up the opportunity to buy back the rights once the four years with Sky are up. The promise to show a handful of Carnegie Irish League matches also seems a pointless add-on – a highlights package would be preferable as fans should be encouraged into attending local grounds, not watching games on the television. The IFA, while not acting totally altruistically, have obviously struck the Sky deal with the best of intentions. However, similar to the proposed Maze relocation, the viability of the IFA’s decision-making can only be judged by performances on the pitch and thus the inevitable willingness or unwillingness of people to watch Northern Ireland in a larger stadium or on non-terrestrial television. As anyone who knows their football will tell you, our international side has been used to many more lows than highs and pinning so many commercial ventures on our current success could prove to be a risky business in the longer-term.

Source: The Other View Magazine, Summer 2007

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