Shields hoping cross-Border competition can be stepping stone to all-island league

Dundalk will take on Linfield in two-legged clash for Unite the Union Champions Cup

Linfield’s Bastien Hery and Dundalk’s Chris Shields with United the Union Champions Cup tournament ambassador Pat Jennings at Windsor Park on Thursday. Photograph: Philip Magowan/Inpho

Linfield’s Bastien Hery and Dundalk’s Chris Shields with United the Union Champions Cup tournament ambassador Pat Jennings at Windsor Park on Thursday. Photograph: Philip Magowan/Inpho

 

Chris Shields has described the new cross-Border competition in which Dundalk will face Linfield next month as “a great initiative”, with the midfielder suggesting he would like to see the two-legged clash between the title winners serve as a stepping stone to the all-island league currently being discussed by clubs.

The two clubs will face each other on November 8th and 11th in the Unite the Union Champions Cup, the first attempt at a competition involving clubs from the two leagues since the demise of the Setanta Cup five years ago.

The first game between the two sides will be at the National Football Stadium (formerly Windsor Park) on the 8th. The second, in Oriel Park three days later, will be refereed by the same female match officials who oversaw the women’s World Cup final and Super Cup between Chelsea and Liverpool – referee Stephanie Frappart, of France, along with Irish assistant referee Michelle O’Neill, Manuela Nicolasai and fourth official Paula Brady from Dublin. They will be coming here after having overseen the sold out Wembley friendly between England’s women and Germany a couple of days earlier.

Speaking at the launch of the event in Belfast, Shields said that the new competition is “a great initiative and especially with the talk of maybe, one day an all-island league. I have a fondness for the league up here, living in Bangor; I watch the Northern Ireland league more than any other because it’s on my doorstep. I was here the night Linfield played Qarabag and they were excellent that night.

“They are trying to change the perspective of the way the game is played up here and I think the idea of the two leagues coming together is an exciting proposition.

“I know that it won’t be easy to pull together, but I’ve been following the league for a long time and I think it would pull more people into the whole thing. The idea of it is brilliant but it’s just a question of getting it across the line.”

Club officials from both sides of the Border are to meet in Dundalk next Thursday to further discuss Kieran Lucid’s plan. Doubts seem to persist on both sides of the border regarding the extent of the support it enjoys among clubs from the other league but Linfield general manager, Pat Fenlon, insists clubs will simply do what is in their best interests in the end.

“My own opinion is that we explore it and if it’s what’s best for the game, every club will look after themselves; that’s the way football works,” said Fenlon. “We have to ask ourselves how do you develop the game, attendances, TV deals, all of that, but if it is of benefit to the game then that’s what the clubs will look at. We’ll go to the meeting next week ourselves, take what’s said back to the club and then like everyone else, we will do what is best for Linfield.

The Dubliner, who has previously spoken supportively of the general idea, says that he has expressed reservations about what is widely seen as an ambitious timeline line with the suggestion being that it would be up and running in 2021.

“I have spoken to him about that,” he said. “My way of looking at this is not to rush. If we are going to do this or even if we are going to do something up here, like with a change of the season, it’s think about it, get it right so that when you do it, people take notice and it’s a brand new product. That’s probably where I differ slightly from him in terms of the timeline but, like I say, that’s all for discussion.”

Pat Jennings, tournament ambassador for the Unite sponsored event said that he was delighted to see Ireland’s top clubs competing against each other but also with the social aspect of the union’s backing, with a quarter of the prize fund going to initiatives in schools, smaller clubs and the wider communities around the two competing teams.

“Hopefully we can get rid of some of the hatred in football,” he said. “We’ve seen enough of it this week but there is no place in football for racism.”

One of the initiatives will involve the FAI helping to train 20 young residents of the Direct Provision centre in Mosney as football coaches. The centre has its own club, Mosney FC, while many of the youngsters living there play for nearby schoolboy sides.

Shields’ Dundalk clubmate, Michael Duffy, meanwhile, has been named as the Airticity/SWAI Player of the Month for September.

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