Despite a successful pre-season tournament in Northern Ireland, it was all rather meaningless, as Davy Millar explains
The inaugural Belfast Carlsberg Challenge was adjudged to be a great success by nearly everyone involved. The promoter made a profit and Linfield and Glentoran each pocketed £50,000 for their efforts. Liverpool re-established contact with their Irish fans, sold a few more replica kits and got some much-needed trophy-lifting practice thrown in. And even if Feyenoord seemed occasionally confused by events, especially in defence, at least it got them out of the house for a while.
Everywhere you looked there were plus points. The weather was above average for this pathetic summer, the Belfast clubs drew 2-2 which meant that neither set of fans felt obliged to demand a rematch on the terraces and Robbie Fowler didn’t get to perform his latest goal celebration. Oh, and Channel 5 got something to fill up their schedule on a slack Saturday afternoon.
The downside is that all this was totally meaningless. Every summer all around Europe, clubs are competing in similarly pointless events which all end up with someone hoisting a hastily welded trophy to provide a nice photo for the sponsor’s brochure.
The Carlsberg Challenge wasn’t even a tournament as Liverpool and Feyenoord were guaranteed their places in the final. Nobody was prepared to tolerate a repeat of the fiasco in Dublin a few years ago when Derry City accidentally beat Celtic to reach the final of another of these meaningless cups. Although they manfully avoided bursting into tears at the final whistle, the promoters knew that the sponsors, the TV network and the advertisers would all be out for blood at being deprived of Celtic by a bunch of Irish part-timers they’d probably never heard of.
Therefore, the Carlsberg Challenge was run on strict commercial lines, with Linfield and Glentoran being barred from the final. Even if either had managed to pull off a shock victory against their professional opponents, the latter would still go through. Now there’s a potentially interesting rule change for the Champions League.
Of course, glamour is merely relative. Feyenoord may have a good team and an illustrious history, but for the Belfast public they had all the allure of Dover Athletic, adding precisely nothing to the gate when they played Glentoran. Even more surprising was Liverpool’s failure to sell out Windsor Park for either of their two games. For a club with a supposedly massive following here, this is another worrying sign of how far they’ve slipped. A few more years of failure could see even their own shirt sponsors failing to invite them to any challenge matches.
Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Milk Cup was proving as popular as ever. This youth tournament attracts teams from all over the globe but, as ever, most of the attention is reserved for the Under-16 teams of Manchester United. It’s not unusual to see the Old Trafford kids scraping through a group match with 3,000 locals there to cheer them on. If either of their teams makes it to finals day, the organisers are assured of a bumper crowd.
These home supporters aren’t all kids – there will be plenty of grown men in replica shirts getting all worked up over a bunch of schoolboys they’ve never seen, purely because they train at Old Trafford. Most of these supporters do manage to keep things in perspective, treating the Milk Cup as a bit of fun, but when a late goal gives Crewe the Under-16 crown over United, more than a few faces display bitter disappointment.
Judging by the relative attendances, the Liverpool first team are only marginally a bigger draw than United’s Under-16 team. That might be embarrassing for the Anfield men but they’re not the only ones who should worry. Those kids are playing to bigger crowds than the vast majority of Irish national league matches and getting close to the average international attendance.
Northern Ireland is something of a special case. Our club sides are way off the pace in European competition, while the national side is only rarely in contention to qualify for major tournaments. For many here, the English Premier provides the glamour the local sides cannot. But this is also a glimpse of the future for everyone. As a European League approaches, real power and glamour will be the preserve of an ever smaller number of clubs. Large swathes of Europe will be ripe for exploitation, relying on titbits like youth tournaments and exhibition games to feed their obsession and to give them a glimpse of the big time.
From WSC 151 September 1999. What was happening this month