FAI expects League of Ireland to begin as scheduled in March

Questions do remain over the Women’s National League due to its amateur status

Most League of Ireland clubs returned to pre-season training last week. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Most League of Ireland clubs returned to pre-season training last week. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

The FAI has said it expects the men’s and women’s League of Ireland seasons to proceed as scheduled although its failure to answer a number of specific questions on Thursday suggested a reluctance to be drawn into a debate over the withdrawal of GAA’s exemption from Level 5 Coronavirus restrictions.

In a statement, the association said simply that: “The League of Ireland remains on schedule for the season to begin as planned in March across the SSE Airtricity Men’s Premier and First Divisions and SSE Airtricity Women’s National League.”

With clubs having started to return to preseason training last week, there is relief around the league that it does still look to be on course to start getting competitive games played in the middle of next month although there is some concern that the women’s league, which is entirely amateur, might yet be affected.

“The Government seems to have attached weight to the fact that the league is professional,” said Stephen McGuinness of players’ union, the PFAI. “The Premier Division is completely professional (though not all clubs are full-time and some players do have jobs outside of the game) while the First Division is a mixture of professional and amateur but it’s certainly welcome that as things stand, those players who earn a living from football are going to be able to work through the coming months.

“Obviously, though, the Women’s League (which is due to kick-off on March 27th) is not professional and if that’s the decisive factor here then maybe that will become an issue over the next few weeks, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Important element

Speaking on RTÉ Radio on Thursday the Minister for State, Jack Chambers confirmed that the professional status of players had been an important element in the Government’s thinking. “In the roadmap that was published last autumn,” he said, “we gave exemptions for professional sports. For example, the League of Ireland is a professional league. That is the distinction.”

Speaking to The Irish Times at the end of last month, well before the Government’s announcement this week and responding to a question solely about his view on the Airtricity League’s ability to get through the coming season safely and without serious disruption, the FAI’s Dr Alan Byrne said that he was “optimistic” that things would go well.

“I am certainly optimistic but I wouldn’t say foolishly optimistic,” he said. “I would reference what we achieved last season in what were difficult and unknown circumstances, when we were learning a lot as each day and week unfolded.

“If you look at say, our European qualified teams, male and female from last season – Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers, Bohs, Derry and Peamount – they played 15 games and had about 1,600 PCR tests which were all negative, which I think is impressive.

“We had 22 cases in the whole league between the men’s Premier, the First Division and Women’s National League. And they were community based transmissions and that was in consultation with public health that that was confirmed; so no football specific or training specific activity was related to transmission of the virus.

I’m optimistic,” he continued, “because I think we’ve shown that we can do it, and when I say we, I am talking about the players, the clubs, the officials the managers the coaches. I think we’ve shown that we’ve got a safe game, and that if we stay committed to all of the basics, you know, keeping your distance, washing our hands, wearing masks and all those things.

“And so I’m very optimistic but I don’t mean foolishly optimistic, based on the things I’ve just told you there.”

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