St Pat’s decision underlines lack of certainty surrounding football’s return

FAI have put forward a number of options to complete league season to the clubs

St Patrick’s Athletic announced on Wednesday that the club has had to  temporarily lay off of its playing and coaching staff. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

St Patrick’s Athletic announced on Wednesday that the club has had to temporarily lay off of its playing and coaching staff. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

The FAI has put a range of possible timeframes for the resumption of Airtricity League matches in the coming months before the National League Executive Committee (NLEC) and said that it will work with clubs to provide the supports they require to get playing again.

A decision by St Patrick’s Athletic to temporarily lay off its players and team management, however, has served to underline the ongoing lack of any sense of certainly around the Irish game as to when football might be played here again.

In its briefing to the NLEC (essentially the board of the league which includes representatives of clubs in both divisions) the association outlined a number of possible dates for a resumption of games and options with regard to whether those games played might be watched by a live audience.

They ranged from the June 19th restart and December season end targeted several weeks ago to a September resumption that would be followed by a campaign extending into February of next year.

Ultimately, though, both the FAI and NLEC chair Noel Byrne have acknowledged that they are at the mercy of the Government restrictions imposed with the intention of controlling Covid-19. And despite the increasing talk generally of how they might start to be eased, there is clearly no strong sense around Abbotstown of what will happen when even the current period of lockdown expires on May 5th, much less beyond.

“We must also prepare for all eventualities around a return to football,” said FAI interim deputy chief executive officer Niall Quinn afterwards. “The FAI and the NLEC are now working with the clubs to explore the financial impact around a return to action under all circumstances.”

Having taken the view that the prospect of competitive action anytime before the end of the summer is far-fetched, St Patrick’s announced on Wednesday that it had decided paying its players while waiting, powerless, to see how things pan out has become unsustainable. Both they and the club’s team management have been laid off for the time being with club president Tom O’Mahony estimating that it will be the autumn before any games can be played.

“Essentially we don’t now believe that there is any prospect that we will be playing football before September,” he says. “And from listening to what Government ministers and public health officials are saying, we believe that we will be very lucky to be back playing then.

“We cannot leave ourselves in a position where we are paying wages through the summer, and perhaps the autumn, until we get to the stage where football does actually return but we have completely exhausted all of our funding. That would do very long-term damage to the club.”

Only the day before, the FAI’s interim chief executive, Gary Owens, had expressed optimism with regard to the possibility of a much earlier return, albeit with restrictions of some sort on attendances, and said he would be seeking clarification from the Government on what leeway there might be for a league that generally attracts crowds in the 1,000 to 5,000 range in the event that only gatherings larger than that were prohibited.

At Richmond Park, they don’t seem to have felt it was worth waiting for a reaction from the authorities, although O’Mahony did suggest they would be happy to be proven wrong.

After all the flak it has taken down the years for never seeming to have a plausible Plan B at the ready, it would be unfair now to criticise the FAI for having explored so many alternatives. It does seem that while the other two major field sports’ governing bodies are a little clearer on where they stand with their headline events, the association’s new leadership is struggling to provide the sort of solutions those involved are desperate for.

The precarious financial state of so many clubs combined with the absence of any really significant broadcast income means that playing behind closed doors remains a far less palatable option, were it to become available, than it would be for rugby or the GAA. The involvement around the league of a couple of hundred professional players obviously adds to the pressure.

There was some optimism after briefings by Government last week that the players might at least be able to get back training but if there might be no games before September then there is not much point in reassembling squads in early May. They would, for a start, expect to be paid, and after St Patrick’s Athletic joined Sligo Rovers in withholding payments, other clubs may well reconsider their own positions.

Both Uefa and Fifa have a role to play in all of this. The former is due to make some important calls on its own club competitions – the latter stages of this season’s and earliest stages of next season’s – on Thursday and both issues will have implications here, most obviously on the four Irish clubs due to compete.

Fifa, meanwhile, has committed considerable support to all its member associations and is said to be a month or two away from coming up with a formula for providing it. For a leadership here that seemed to have done so much in a short space of time to address the immediate financial crisis out at Abbotstown, the ongoing uncertainty around the senior club game means that that cheque surely now can’t come soon enough.

The FAI has announced that its regional development officers are to work with one of its sponsors, Boots, to help deliver prescriptions to people unable to collect them in 13 counties around Ireland. The initiative has been backed by a number of local authorities and another of the association’s commercial backers, Nissan.

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