BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THE Ulster Senior League has decided to return to winter football in 2015, but the immediate future of some of its participants remains unknown.
An Emergency General Meeting of the League and its clubs on Tuesday night in the Mount Errigal Hotel saw those present vote 12-3 in favour of a return to an August-May calendar after seven years and eight seasons operating off the summer season timetable.
Despite the overwhelming majority of the attendance favouring the switch, there remain serious questions for the League and its powers that be over the coming weeks following a useful discussion during a meeting lasting just 43 minutes on Tuesday.
Before the beginning of the 2015/16 season, which would kick-off next August, the League’s executive included in its motion to the meeting a provision to play an interim season running between January and May to help fill the void.
However, the future of the senior clubs, Derry City and Finn Harps – who, along with Swilly Rovers, voted against the proposal – is now in doubt, principally because the USL will now be ‘out of sync’ with the League of Ireland’s summer season. John Quigg of Derry and Aidan Campbell, the Harps representative, both intimated that their clubs would now review their respective entries.
There were further concerns expressed by Drumkeen United’s Tom Bonner, who said that his club found itself in a position where their own participation was under a cloud.
“We have always been for summer football, but in the last season we completely and utterly changed,” he said.
“We were lucky to get the season finished. 23 of our players have gone other ways. We finished the season playing under-16 players. We met the players who did stay with us and we don’t even know if we will have a team or not, whether it is a short season, a winter season or whatever.
“Our AGM takes place in a month. I don’t know what will happen, but at the minute we don’t have a senior team. All our players have gone. It has become too easy for players to transfer – they just hop and jump anywhere and everywhere.
“If there is a short season, we will have no chance to get players. They have all gone to play junior football. Whatever hope we have of getting them back to play the Ulster Senior League in August, as far as I’m concerned, that is the only hope.”
The comments of Bonner, a long-time official in Donegal soccer, were echoed by the Fanad United manager, Michael Deeney.
“I honestly don’t think that we’d be in a position for the short season,” he said.
“I would be in favour of summer football, which is against the grain in Fanad, but that is purely as a coach. To me, it is blatantly obvious that summer football can’t work in this area.”
The deluge of players leaving the ranks of the USL in the autumn, leaving to join junior teams before the intermediate season’s close, has been a source of real angst among clubs.
In 2013, Kildrum Tigers failed to field in a game against Cockhill Celtic at the end of the season, citing the haemorrhaging of players as the reason and the St Johnston club’s withdrawal in January brought the number of clubs within the Ulster Senior League to just eight. Given that the League hasn’t been running on a parallel with the junior seasons in the Donegal and Inishowen Leagues, attracting new blood has proved next to impossible for the Ulster Senior League’s organisers.
In 2012, there were 83 transfers to the junior leagues, a figure that rose to 110 in 2013 before jumping to 125 in the season just passed, while only two clubs – Cockhill Celtic and Letterkenny Rovers – have entered the FAI Intermediate Cup this year.
“Looking at the past season, I felt that we were fighting an uphill battle,” USL Chairman Johnny McCafferty said.
“We aren’t able to expand. I feel that the Ulster FA should be doing more to bring the Leagues together and to come up with a formula. The League has become static with no promotion or relegation.”
The lack of dialogue between the relevant people was touched on by USL registrar Dessie Kelly, who is also the Ulster FA secretary, who blasted the clubs by saying: “There are teams in a comfort zone and the Ulster Senior League is by far and away a higher standard than they are capable of playing.”
Jason Gibson suggested that Donegal soccer at large may need ‘FAI intervention’ to ‘come from the outside in to look at our structures’.
The USL made the switch to summer football on the controversial casting vote of then Chairman Eamon McConigley in 2007, but now the very future of the local intermediate League, formed in 1986, is at stake.
Letterkenny Rovers secretary Eric White urged those present to work towards next summer, even if it means parking the idea of the truncated term in between.
“The focus now has to be on August 2015,” he said.
“Whether we go for an interim season or not, the clubs and the League have to get their houses in order for next August.
“We changed our stance 12 months ago, not for the love of winter football, but for the integrity of the League and to safeguard the League.
“The situation with transfers has become embarrassing. The League was 100 per cent right to try summer football, but for it to work the junior game would have had to move too.”
John Quigg spoke about the benefits of the USL to Derry City – mentioning that seven of the 2012 USL-winning team had stepped into the first-team squad at the Brandywell – but with the under-19 season underway and an under-17 campaign to follow next year, he suggested that his club would ‘review’ their position.
“Summer football suits us better,” agreed Aidan Campbell, the Harps delegate.
“We have no definite decision made, but facilities would be a problem for us in the winter.”
Derry, Harps and Swilly all raised the voting cards against the motion, while the seven-man executive plus the remaining five clubs – Bonagee United, Cockhill Celtic, Drumkeen United, Fanad United and Letterkenny Rovers – all backed the change, proposed by USL treasurer Donal Coyle and seconded by Bonagee United’s Gerard McGuinness, seeing it garner the necessary two-thirds majority.
A delegate meeting on November 17th will see the finer points of the move discussed, but for the USL and its clubs there remain some imposing issues as regards the future.