Small countries and second class citizens in European football: what is the future for football in Northern Ireland?

Small countries and second class citizens in European football: what is the future for football in Northern Ireland?

Room G01 – Clore Management Centre,
Birkbeck College,
Torrington Square,
London WC1 7HX

Wednesday 16th November at 6pm

Given by:

Dr. Jonathan Magee, International Football Institute, University of Central Lancashire


In preparation for his trip to Lithuania in July 2005 to watch Liverpool, the UEFA Champions’ League holders, take on local champions FC Kaunus, Michel Platini – prospective UEFA President and French football legend – outlined how the recent changes in European football had facilitated a hierarchy underpinned by “small countries.[who are] second class citizens” (cited in The Sunday Telegraph , July 24 2005: Sport 8). Platini’s mandate, if elected to the Presidency, is to prevent the Champions League from becoming “a private club” (ibid.) by providing opportunity for teams from smaller countries to be drawn against Europe ‘s elite clubs in the early stages.

Northern Ireland , despite a rich history which includes possession of the British Homes Championships title and three World Cup Finals appearances, is now one of Platini’s ‘small countries’. Languishing in 116 th place in the FIFA / Coca~Cola rankings below the likes of Gabon , Congo and Turkmenistan , the break up of the former Soviet Union and the subsequent expansion of competitive football in Europe has been difficult to adjust to. The 1986 World Cup was the last time Northern Ireland qualified for the latter stages of any tournament and the quarter-final appearance in the 1958 World Cup seems incomprehensible when compared to present performances.

In European club football, a similar tale exists with Irish League clubs now usually out of European competitions in the preliminary qualifying round at a time when their domestic season has yet to start. Notable past results in Europe, like Glentoran’s home leg draw with Rangers in 1966 and home victory over Arsenal in 1969, and Linfield’s home defeat of Manchester City in 1970, seem equally incomprehensible to today’s standards. Linfield (1968 European Champions Cup) and Glentoran (1974 UEFA Cup) also reached the quarter final stages whilst Sir Tom Finney turned out for Distillery in a home leg draw against Benfica in front of 21,000 in the 1963 Champions Cup.

The Distillery-Benfica game was held at Windsor Park , home to Linfield FC and the national side, but presently a capacity crowd at the ground is less than it was in 1963. It is difficult to imagine that this ground attracted domestic gates of upwards of 35,000 in the 1930s and 1940s for matches between Linfield and Belfast Celtic. Windsor Park is, by international standards at least, a lower quality ground but its current capacity is a blessing to some degree as today the ground only nears capacity on rare occasions, like the current World Cup campaign. Paradoxically, support for football at the weekend in Northern Ireland is strong but much of this is directed toward following – and for many, attending – the fortunes of teams in Glasgow , Manchester and Liverpool as opposed to those more local. Even when a large crowd is attracted to an Irish League game, as at the championship decider between Glentoran and Linfield in April 2005, serious spectator violence dominated the finale of the game as the contest became embroiled in a much broader but sinister loyalist turf war.

Recognising the dwindling status of the game’s popularity, a taskforce was established and the Northern Ireland Soccer Strategy was produced in 2001 with £8 million of Government funding allocated. In the four years since, little has changed and many of the recommendations have been delayed, ignored, or rejected by the respective organisations. Consequently, as Northern Ireland occupies the lower reaches of another qualifying group the Government money remains unspent yet the game struggles on. The close season of 2005/6 was a microcosm of the problems at hand as Omagh Town FC went out of business and Coleraine FC was granted a last-minute stay of execution from bankruptcy and extinction with debts of over £1 million.

Given the contextual detail provided, this paper looks at what the key issues are for the future of the game in Northern Ireland and seeks to suggest ways in which a seemingly bleak picture can be improved.


  • Bairner, A. (2004) ‘Creating a soccer strategy for Northern Ireland : Reflections on football governance in small European countries’, Soccer and Society, Vol. 5, No. 1: pp.27-42.
  • Hassan, D. (2005) ‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil – The Crisis of Domestic Football in Northern Ireland’ in J. Magee, A. Bairner and A. Tomlinson (eds), The Bountiful Game? Football Identities and Finances , Meyer & Meyer Sport ( UK ), Oxford , pp. 195-216.
  • Magee, J. (2005) ‘Soccer Supporters, Rivalry, and Protestant Fragmentation’ A. Bairner (ed), Sport and the Irish , UCD Press, Dublin , pp. 172-190.
  • Northern Ireland Soccer Strategy

For further details on this seminar series contact:

Sean Hamil
Department of Management
Birkbeck College
Malet Street
London WC1E 7HX

Tel: 020-7631 6763

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