FAI to seek clarification on mass gatherings from Government

Airtricity League restart and September’s Nations League among concerns for association

St Patrick’s Athletic players celebrate Billy King’s goal during the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division game against Cork City at  Richmond Park on March 6th. Photograph: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho

St Patrick’s Athletic players celebrate Billy King’s goal during the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division game against Cork City at Richmond Park on March 6th. Photograph: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho

 

The FAI is to seek clarification from the Government over the coming days on whether there might be scope to restart the Airticity League season in the event that general Covid-19 restrictions started to be eased next month and the ban on mass gatherings of 5,000 or more people announced on Tuesday was to become the key consideration in organising sports events.

Senior association officials will update club representatives and other stakeholders in a conference call at 11 am on Wednesday morning but they have said that the association hopes to be in a position to make a far more definitive statement on the league campaign by May 5th when the Government’s current restrictions expire.

As things stand, Tuesday’s announcement would have a dramatic impact on the association if the imposition of a 5,000 attendance limit was to be extended beyond August 31st as Finland are due to visit the Aviva stadium for a Nations League game on September 6th.

If, on the other hand, social distancing requirements are relaxed at the start of next month, hopes of the league getting back under way in mid-June, as currently envisaged, would be boosted, with clubs potentially open to playing behind closed doors at first if there was the significant prospect of crowds, however limited, gradually returning over the following month or two.

“We really need to be able to hold those matches in September,” said FAI interim chief executive Gary Owens after Tuesday’s briefing of member associations by Uefa, in which it was suggested that Ireland’s playoff semi-final against Slovakia is likely to take place in October.

Speaking on the Government announcement, Owens said: “Hopefully we can get to the end of August and that 5,000 limit will be increased.

“On the other hand, it gives us an opportunity with the League of Ireland clubs. That is a significant input now into the debate we will be having tomorrow with the National League Executive Committee because [a maximum attendance of] 5,000 could now be a level on which we could now resume the League of Ireland.

“Like everything else, the devil is in the detail. We really need to understand what they mean by 5,000 in terms of mass gatherings and what the criteria are that we would have to comply with.”

“We will wait until we hear what the HSE and the Government have to say on May 5th. We are working through the National League Executive Committee and we are considering all the options. We have a number of scenarios which include putting it back, working behind closed doors, restricted stadiums but I think until we hear what the Government have to say and what their advice is, we really can’t make a decision.”

With Uefa still hoping to start the qualifying rounds of the two European club competitions by the end of July, the four clubs scheduled to participate are likely to be particularly keen to get back playing competitive football at the earliest opportunity. But with players’ wages having to be paid anyway and the alternative potentially being a season that runs well beyond Christmas, it is believed that more clubs than had previously been the case, might be open to the idea of starting back behind closed doors.

“They’ll have to see what is safe first and then what is viable,” says Stephen McGuinness of the PFAI, “but it’s hard to get away from the fact that from the point of view of the league, where there would be relatively few games attracting more than 5,000 people, this is probably a positive announcement.”

Uefa, meanwhile, is expected to confirm its plan to have leagues across the continent up and running again by the end of June and the Champions League final played on August 29th

At its executive committee meeting on Tuesday they acknowledged that there may be “special cases” in which domestic seasons cannot be completed. It is far from clear, however, what they will consider to be such a “special case”. When the Belgians declared their league over last week, Uefa warned that it might not admit the clubs put forward in such situations to next season’s Champions and Europa Leagues.

It is also concerned that in instances like Scotland, where moves have been made to declare the league over, such a move would impact on its ability to conclude this season’s European club competitions with the contracts of players at Rangers, in that instance, who are still involved in the Europa League potentially affected by the end of their domestic season.

Owens, meanwhile, said that, as previously suggested, Uefa’s preference is for the European Championship playoff semi-finals to be played in October with the finals the following month.

“They don’t want to have the semi-final and the final of the playoffs in the one month. It looks like the Nations League matches will be in September and October with the semi-final playoff in October and the final playoff in November.”

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