League of Ireland fixtures are still set to go ahead as scheduled this weekend but the domestic game is now bracing itself for the full impact of the spread of coronavirus, including the likelihood of an imminent shutdown of the SSE Airtricity League.
“No one can be sure but I think there is a feeling that this might be the last weekend of games for a period,” said PFAI General Secretary Stephen McGuinness, after attending a meeting on the implications of Covid-19 with representatives of the clubs and the FAI.
“As things stand, this weekend’s games go ahead but after that there is a question mark.”
The FAI have indicated that they will seek the assistance of government and UEFA to help clubs through the expected crisis period, with Deputy CEO Niall Quinn saying that the prospect of games being postponed or forced behind closed doors would be “quite catastrophic financially”.
In the meantime, the FAI have issued a number of new match day guidelines for clubs, including that goal celebrations should be minimised, there should be no sharing of water bottles and towels and no holding hands of mascots.
Clubs are also taking steps to maximise supporter health and safety ahead of this weekend’s round of games.
“We’re planning for Friday’s game against Bohemians to go ahead and working diligently in the background to make sure Turner’s Cross is as safe as possible for supporters who come to the game,” said Cork City chairman Declan Carey.
“With the risk of coronavirus, we’re putting out a social media campaign to encourage things like contactless payment, asking fans to buy tickets online so they can enter the ground without having to exchange cash. We’re stocking up our toilet facilities with relevant sanitisers and soaps.
"There will also be messaging across the PA and signs around the place to encourage safety."
In the medium to longer term, the likelihood of tightened restrictions on public events is a development which would have significant and troubling ramifications for many League of Ireland clubs for whom gate receipts are a vital source of revenue.
“We’re a business at the end of the day and if we’re unable to bring fans in the gate that would pose serious challenges for us,” said Carey.
Livelihoods are involved. If GAA matches are called off it wouldn’t impact people’s pay and livelihoods as much as it would in League of Ireland clubs. And we have off the field staff who have to be looked after as well.
If it comes down to a choice between games being played behind closed doors or a league suspension, Carey suggests the latter would be the lesser of two evils.
“A suspension of the league, if we could work around it, would allow us to continue to work away in the background. Playing games behind closed doors is probably out of the question, to be honest.
“It’s different to the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A where they have huge TV money and commercial revenues. We just don’t have that. And that goes back to issues we have with the league in general, where we’re so heavily reliant on gates because of lack of funding, TV money and commercial revenue.”
Following a meeting attended by the FAI, the National League Executive Committee and the PFAI — the latter two bodies representing clubs and players respectively — a steering group was set up which, according to the FAI, will examine the potential impact of “a sporting shutdown.”
The six-man task force, with two representatives each from the NLEC, the PFAI and the FAI, are to meet on a daily basis.
One of the union’s immediate concerns relates to clubs who use public gyms and training facilities and, where possible, they will be urging that they move their training sessions to their own grounds.
After the meeting, an FAI spokesman said: “We are currently gathering all financial data and working with the clubs and the players on the financial implications they face.
Once we have a true understanding of this, we will be approaching Government and UEFA on behalf of the clubs to seek their support.”
Meanwhile, Niall Quinn has said that Ireland’s travelling party for the behind closed doors play-off game in Slovakia on March 26 — should it go ahead — will be very small.
“Only the team and those who affect the team will travel,” he said.
“Mick [McCarthy] must have the mindset that his team are travelling. It could change, I wouldn’t like to bet one way or the other, but this problem seems to be escalating and we have to do the right thing and be ready if we have to alter things significantly.”