FAI left with two options fraught with minefields

Something will have to give between club and player representatives for the League of Ireland season to be rescued.
FAI left with two options fraught with minefields
Simon Harris’ warning about mass audiences not returning until 2021 has sent shockwaves across Irish sports.

Something will have to give between club and player representatives for the League of Ireland season to be rescued.

Football matches, like GAA and rugby, are under threat following a declaration by Simon Harris that events attracting “mass audiences” won’t resume until 2021.

The Health Minister’s stark warning sent shockwaves across the sporting administrative sphere on Sunday as plans for games to be back up and running once the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic passes were in train.

Plotting a timeline of June 19 for the League of Ireland to restart was always deemed aspirational but the latest set-back leaves the Football Association of Ireland facing two options fraught with minefields.

The first is to attempt a policy of social distancing among spectators in grounds or the alternative of having no fans at all.

Clubs have been steadfast in their refusal to countenance, following the lead of the big leagues across Europe, going behind closed doors. Matchday income is the lifeblood to revenue models for clubs.

Examining the idea of limiting the inflow of fans to ensure they can sit or stand six feet apart is also considered a flawed prospect.

For example, before the season had even started Bohemians fully sold out their stand to members, meaning half would be requested to keep away from Dalymount Park for home matches.

It has been suggested that First Division matches, where attendances are sparse and space is plenty, will be given the green light, as will the women’s national league, which was due to start on the weekend of March 14 when all sport in Ireland was halted.

Yesterday’s meeting of the association’s Covid-19 steering group, featuring officials from the clubs, players and the FAI, touched on the challenges surrounding a return to action, without fully taking the minister’s musings as final.

Deputy chief executive Gary Owens, or his deputy Niall Quinn, represent the FAI in the weekly meeting with Minister of State for Sport and tomorrow’s gathering will want to conclude with some form of roadmap.

That will be linked to steps envisaged beyond the next milestone of May 5.

Exactly what specific relaxation of restrictions is permitted from that date has yet to be confirmed but allowing elite players to train again is expected to be one.

It, however, will need to be organised on the basis of fixtures going ahead in the near future.

As it stands, pending agreement on staging matches behind closed doors between the players and clubs, or an arbitrary decision by the FAI, that could be as early as June.

Another element into the mix is a decision from government on extending the wage subsidy scheme beyond mid-June.

All 10 Premier Division clubs, including Cork City, are accessing the state’s 70% per player assistance to maintain salaries.

Sligo Rovers are the only top-flight club as yet not topping it up to match previous wage levels.

Were that scheme to continue, a later restart date of August or September remains a possibility.

Owens will be part of a teleconference today with Uefa in which the probability of Irish club involvement in Europe being deferred until the Autumn will be aired.

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