Linfield’s Euro vision, player talks and fan outreach within five-year plan
A Linfield dream of European football’s star names playing at Windsor Park has moved one step closer to reality with the launch of an ambitious five-year Strategic Plan.
Designed to tackle three key areas of “football development, fan-base growth and improved financial sustainability”, the blueprint highlights European progress as a crucial goal by the Irish League’s most successful club.
Blues chairman Roy McGivern singled out increased opportunities for Irish League clubs on the continental stage as a central theme within a vision of “never standing still” by embracing a full-time model.
“There are two main factors that we have taken account of in bringing this plan forward,” said McGivern. “Firstly, for me it’s about developments in European football and seeing the opportunities there are for Irish League clubs, particularly this year when we look at the new Conference League with more clubs getting through to group stages in European football and we know from some of the clubs down south what that means in financial terms.
“It’s important what we do to take this club to the next level to enable us to compete better in European football...this plan lets us do that.
“Also we have seen other developments in the Irish League and we have watched that in terms of Larne, Crusaders and Glentoran and while it hasn’t been the main factor for us, you have to take account of what’s going on around you and I think the league is improving right across the board.
“Linfield can never stand still and we have to plan for the future.
“We have looked very carefully into the model that suits us best, we haven’t jumped into this overnight, we have taken 18 months to two years to plan this - all of our new signings over the past two years fit into this model and we have talked to current players who we want to keep within this.
“With the new competition coming in, particularly for the league champions, they would potentially have a game in Champions League qualifying rounds, a game in the Europa League qualifying rounds and then maybe you could fall into the play-off round of the Conference League.
“There are different pathways there, there will be less qualifying rounds to get through to a group stage and obviously with the three competitions now there will be more clubs in there...so why should it not be an Irish League club?
“I think it is more realistic now than it was in the past.”
Linfield’s vision towards sustained success will include a measure of flexibility within a full-time model designed to maximise progress on and off the pitch.
Dialogue towards implementing the five-year Strategic Plan that will search for ways in which to advance the 135-year-old Irish League giant across all areas includes player talks with the goal of protecting squad strength.
The plan was described by McGivern as “ambitious and challenging but that is the mindset that we need to embrace as we strive to maintain our position at the pinnacle of local football” ahead of yesterday’s launch date.
The move into a full-time structure includes the extension of a transfer strategy in place to date that has led to additions in line with long-term planning.
Although accepting some players - including fan favourites and those with vital trophy-winning experience - may be unable to alter personal circumstances alongside fresh commitments, the Linfield hierarchy remain open to conversations.
“We won’t talk about individuals but it brings challenges for players because all their circumstances are very different,” said McGivern. “We are realistic about this as well.
“There is not a huge amount of money in Irish League football, even at a club like Linfield.
“We are doing this within our budget and have re-signed a number of players in recent months to fit into this model in fairly modest terms.
“We aren’t saying people can’t have other incomes outside of football.
“That’s part of the conversation we are having with players - if they can train more at Linfield and can be in better condition and fit into the model but also do work outside of football...that takes a little bit of time to get it right for every individual but I’m very confident within a short period of time that those who want to be part of this set-up will be part of it.”
Current general manager and former Linfield player Pat Fenlon expanded on the issue by confirming “any negotiations we have had with them they are all very keen to stay at the club...sometimes that’s not workable but the players we want at the club moving forward we will try and keep them here”.
Linfield boss David Healy has celebrated Irish League title glory across three of the past four campaigns and Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer is relishing the chance to draw on his professional past experiences to help build on the existing foundations.
“We’ve been as close to full-time in terms of the sessions we do during the week,” said Healy. “When I go back to my playing days in England and Scotland, in a normal scenario when you play Saturday to Saturday, you are off Sunday, in Monday and Thursday, off Wednesday, probably doing four sessions a week.
“Even before I came to Linfield they were doing three sessions a week but it’s the timing of the sessions which will improve our all-round performances going forward.
“I’m not saying it’s a guarantee and we have to be careful, and as a manager I’m not saying this is a guarantee for success going forward because I don’t want to be sitting here in a year thinking ‘well that didn’t wok out for me’.
“But the club has wanted to move forward and improve on-the-field stuff...hopefully, we’ll train longer in the mornings or early afternoons, improve rehab and recovery leading into games to improve all-round play on the pitch.
“We look forward to it and it will give me time to get in around the under-age groups at the club and oversee the development of the younger coaches and players to hopefully take the club forward.
“We look at all aspects, we’ve good people in and around the football club.
“We’ve sat down with staff to discuss our pathway and what we want to achieve in a normal week.
“There will be the challenges of playing midweek games on Tuesdays and possibly Fridays.
“But we’ve put a detailed plan in place for different fixtures across any week, which the players will be given.
“We will try to liaise with other clubs plus I’ve been a professional player across my whole career and Pat’s worked in and around professional environments.
“So over the last year or so we’ve sat down to come up with a general plan to try and maximise the time we get on the training pitch.
“Plus strength-and-conditioning is huge going forward for the players and we’ve already held discussions with people over that area.
“The big thing will be rehab and recovery, which we don’t get too much of at the minute by playing Saturdays-Tuesdays-Fridays.
“Moving forward, players will have individual session plans, on-the-field pitch plans plus off-the-field plans...all of which would be normal as part of a full-time environment.
“I look forward to implementing that on behalf of the club to take us forward.”
The Strategic Plan also includes “actions to re-energise and grow its fanbase and to improve financial sustainability by maximising new opportunities and growing revenue streams”.
“It can be frustrating at time when I think back to playing in Irish Cup finals and you could see 10,000 Linfield fans at the game and you come in on a Saturday and the crowds are nowhere near that,” said Fenlon. “We know we have a real hardcore support and more support for certain games, so it is trying to engage with all those Linfield supporters and a new brand of Linfield supporters.
“Northern Ireland is changing all the time and we need to engage in that.
“Part of our strategy will be meeting with our members and supporters’ clubs to see how we can move forward as a club and bring more people in.
“The more people coming through the turnstiles the better for the club.
“The world is changing, not just Northern Ireland...there are so many things on offer but the one thing we have to enhance and make better use of is our stadium.
“We have fantastic facilities here and we’ve got to make sure we try to entice people into that.
“So it’s about getting the message out in terms of what we’re about.
“The club wants to be successful, we have a really good team at the moment and we want people to come and watch the team and have a really good day out at Windsor Park.
“We have to engage with outside groups...driving attendances right across the board in the league is a job for everybody and for me at this club, we know we have a huge support out there but we have to tap into that and grow the fanbase.
“We have had contact with other clubs outside of here and in other sports, as well.
“There was a big improvement in attendances in the League of Ireland before Covid and a lot of that was because of outreach in the communities and the work they’ve done there.
“We had started that progress but it was difficult to continue and maintain it after Covid...but it’s something we have to pick up again.
“I’ve spoken to many people and it’s something we will continue to do.”
McGivern also highlighted the desire to expand the fanbase beyond traditional dimensions.
“We try to do a lot of outreach in the community...Northern Ireland is changing but this area is also changing,” said McGivern. “If you look at the demographics of South Belfast, the Lisburn Road and the Donegall Road; there’s a whole new population here and people love football, no matter where they come from.
“It’s always a challenge to change people’s perceptions, it’s the way things are here.
“If you look at this club at all levels - look at the boys’ academy, girls’ academy, the ladies’ team and the first team; at all levels it’s a very inclusive club so there is no reason why we shouldn’t be attracting people from other backgrounds to Windsor Park.
“I’m very keen to do that, the Board is keen to do that but it is a big challenge in this country and that’s a fact.
“That was also a big part of bringing Pat in, to use his experience having played here and having a view from outside Northern Ireland to see what else what we can do to attract more people here.
“We have to reach out to the schools and the local community and try to attract those people into the club.
“I think we have a great club here...there’s a great product here.”
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