O’Neill defends IFA over postponed Russia clash
Manager blames freak weather as Windsor Park game is frozen off
A groundsman looks at the Windsor Park pitch after Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualifier against Russia was postponed. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill believes the “freak weather” that forced the abandonment of his side’s World Cup qualifier with Russia would have posed problems for any country.
The Group F clash was originally due to be played last night at Windsor Park, but a deluge of snow led to the contest being pushed back to this afternoon.
Continued poor weather overnight meant that always looked to be a decision made in hope rather than expectation, but Fifa regulations state that there must be an attempt to stage delayed fixtures the following day.
As it was Norwegian referee Tom Hagen and the Fifa match delegates decided to cancel just before 11am, having completed further inspections this morning.
The formation of ice on the pitch was the official reason, though spectator safety was also a clear consideration due to the treacherous conditions in and around the Belfast ground.
The stadium lacks most of the mod cons synonymous with international football – there is no under soil heating for a start – but O’Neill feels the extent of the bad weather would have caused headaches for bodies bigger and wealthier than the Irish Football Association.
“We experienced freak weather over a short period of time, from late Thursday and early Friday – freak weather which would have been challenging for any association to get the game on,” he said.
“At the end of the day there are more modern stadia that could maybe deal with it but it’s the first time in history it has happened (to Northern Ireland), so it’s not something we haven’t managed well, or have mis-managed over time.”
There have been some suggestions that the lack of pitch covers could have contributed to the state of the playing surface and that the IFA might have done more to source some.
But O’Neill was in no mood to lay blame.
“That’s predominantly an operations thing, I am not involved in it at all,” he said. “It’s not really a manager’s position to get into that.
“We certainly wanted to play on Friday and we also wanted to play today, but I’m not completely sure the Russians were so keen about today.
“Either way, the referee made a quick decision this morning and said that for the safety of the players it was unrealistic to think we could play.”
With a second qualifier due to be played against Israel on Tuesday, O’Neill must quickly shift his focus from the Russia saga to that match.
That game would surely have been cast into doubt had any match been possible this weekend, with Windsor Park highly unlikely to cope with two games in four days given present its condition.
His planning for that fixture will have altered slightly, with Kyle Lafferty and Chris Baird now unavailable for it.
The pair were due to sit out against Russia with suspensions before rejoining the group for the Israel clash. Instead, they will stay away.
Behind the scenes, negotiations will start over when to play the rearranged Russia match.
No decision was possible today, with the visitors heading to London ahead of Monday’s glamour friendly with Brazil at Stamford Bridge, but discussions will continue.
June is an option likely to be favoured by Russia, who already have on qualifier lined up during that international window, but Northern Ireland are not thought to be in agreement.
“We will now have to sit down with our counterparts from the Russian Federations and decide when we can stage the fixture,” said IFA head of communications Geoff Wilson.