Windsor Park hosted a rare gathering of the top brass from both the FAI and IFA to launch the 'Unite the Union Champions Cup' and it began with a tricky scenario for Fran Gavin; the draw to decide whether the final on December 4th is held in Dublin or Belfast.
Not that the League of Ireland clubs are necessarily willing to play on that date.
Gavin – or the FAI’s “data registration and competitions manager” to give his full title – was called on to the stage in the ‘Pat Jennings suite’ to help pluck one of two balls, labelled ‘Aviva Stadium’ and ‘Windsor Park,’ from a very large bowl.
At this exact moment, Jackie Pollock, a regional secretary for the title sponsors, decided to announce that “a lot has changed in the last two years – Liverpool won the league and that was hard to stomach as a Leeds United fan.”
Anyway, back to the draw.
"The Aviva Stadium," Gavin revealed to a reaction of complete silence until Linfield manager David Healy offered his view.
“Our groundsman out there will be absolutely delighted with that,” said Healy, Northern Ireland’s all-time leading goal scorer, “because there are so many games in November.”
The venue is confirmed but the final date is by no means solidified for the second instalment of the Champions Cup, following last year’s postponement.
The tournament has been expanded from two to four clubs with the North and South champions joined by the runners-up in their respective leagues. Linfield, as NIFL Premiership champions, will face Coleraine in the first semi-final on November 23rd but the 2021 tournament could be pushed into January 2022 to facilitate the southern opponent.
Shamrock Rovers, who are nine points clear in the Airtricity League with seven games remaining, finish their campaign on November 19th so a December 4th final would force them to abandon an already short off-season after just two weeks.
The same could apply to the runner-up, unless St Patrick’s Athletic make the FAI Cup final on November 28th.
"We have plenty of games in November already," reiterated Pat Fenlon, Linfield's general manager, "we already had a game called off the other day, so we have to fit that in.
“It’s a good competition, it is decent prizemoney, which I am sure everyone is happy with, and ‘Unite’ have backed it really well,” Fenlon continued. “We have four tournaments here that we take very seriously, so it’s another game.”
Fenlon did not rule out fielding a weakened team for the semi-final.
“It’s up to the manager [Healy]. The problem we had last time, when we went to Dundalk for the second leg [and lost 6-0 in 2019], was that we had a huge game on Saturday. It’s the manager’s call, it depends on what you have coming up.”
The tournament will continue to struggle for a regular slot in the calendar as Mark Scanlon, the FAI's League of Ireland director, revealed a desire to have no club fixtures during international windows, in order to facilitate the growing number of underage Irish internationals signed to domestic clubs due to Brexit.
“The international windows are starting to impact the league schedule which is a positive for the growth of the league,” said Scanlon. “It’s something we are thinking about next year, the possibility of avoiding the international windows completely and planning around that.”
Scanlon made more positive noise on FAI discussions with the Government around State funding for facilities, so clubs can wash their own face, and long-term investment in academies.
“We have had some really good conversations with the Minister and the Government in general over the last two seasons. So hopefully that is something that we will build on and get a bigger injection of funds.”
However, the holding pattern appears to be positivity without substance.
“The comments from Government towards working with us in the league have been really positive,” Scanlon added. “I think everyone sees the big picture in it. That’s ourselves, the clubs and Government that we will continue to drive forward and have them discussions and hopefully they will be really positive.”