Clubs will have to fulfil fixtures or forfeit them during the coming season according to Airtricity League director Mark Scanlon, who insists there can be no repeat of the coronavirus related postponements that threatened at one stage to wreck last year's already curtailed campaign.
Shamrock Rovers, St Patrick’s Athletic and Waterford were among the top-flight sides to have games deferred last year due to issues with Covid-19. The concluding round of matches was then ultimately deferred for 24 hours when Derry City were found to have been justified in having declined to travel for a fixture in Dublin due to public health restrictions North of the border and had to have it hurriedly refixed.
With a full programme of games scheduled for the coming season, though, Scanlon says that clubs accept that there is no room for repeated postponements. And while there will be greater scope for teams to call up underage players, matches will have to go ahead if a squad of 14 can be assembled with the game forfeited if one side ultimately declares that it is not in a position to proceed as planned.
“I think last year was difficult because we were mid-season and rules were in place,” said Scanlon during an online launch for the 2021 campaign which kicks off on Friday night with the President’s Cup tie between Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk in Tallaght.
“We’ve introduced a set of rules around postponements this year; the clubs have been fully informed on that and been involved in the process. We’ve had that signed off by the NLEC [National League Executive Committee] and by the clubs as well. Basically there won’t be postponements this year,” he claimed.
“We’ve introduced increased protocols which will hopefully prevent close contacts within clubs and a number of players being stood down. We’ve improved our registration process to allow clubs to register under-19 players with first teams as well so they’ve a wider base to be able to pick from. And as long as the club has 14 fit and available players the fixture will proceed. If they don’t, it would be a situation where the game would be conceded.
“We can’t get having indefinite postponements again this year and not knowing when our fixtures are going to be played.” he said.
The new rules, he suggested, would require Derry City to forfeit a game even if, as was the case when the club failed to travel to Tallaght at the end of October, they were obeying government regulations.
Scanlon said that the league is working with other FAI affiliates to establish better structures with regard to future admissions to the league after Shamrock Rovers had their development team excluded for the coming season and Dublin County, established specifically for the purpose, had its application for admittance to the First Division rejected.
He said the decision not to expand the First Division from 10 teams had been key and Treaty United had effectively been seen as having the strongest case for participation. But the establishment of something more closely resembling a proper pyramid system and, potentially, some sort of bridge between under-19 and senior football will be discussed in the coming months.
“It’s something that we are very keen to review this year and discuss with clubs,” said Scanlon. “How we bridge that gap between the under 19s and first-team football and what that model might look like. I definitely think that you will see some changes there.
“We would like to have a pyramid structure in place where there are opportunities for teams to gain promotion to the league if they meet the licensing criteria in place,” he added.
Asked about the announcement on Tuesday of a changed pecking order within the management team at Dundalk, Scanlon said that the club had listed Shane Keegan as manager in all of its licensing documentation and Filippo Giovagnoli as a coach. He strongly suggested that the league accepts that this will be the reality of the situation but said that action would be taken it turns out not to be.
Neither the league nor the association has, he confirmed, any issue with Shamrock Rovers following Dundalk in announcing an online gambling firm as its main sponsor. The Dublin club revealed a two-year deal with 888 on Wednesday that was poorly received on social media.
“Clubs have to make those decisions themselves about who they want to bring on board as partners,” said Scanlon. “As long as they [the sponsorships] sit in the Uefa and FAI regulations, we are happy with that.”