Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Never on Sunday? An unholy row kicks off over Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 tie

Ex-Northern Ireland  footballer Stuart Elliott
Ex-Northern Ireland footballer Stuart Elliott

It's been a long time since Northern Ireland was known for tying up swings on a Sunday to stop children playing on them.

But that hasn't taken any heat out of the reaction to news that Northern Ireland will play their first international at home on the Sabbath as part of their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.

As the dust settled on an exciting draw for the international team which has set them against the likes of Hungary, Finland and Romania, a number of well-known figures have weighed into the debate on whether the date of one controversial fixture should be moved.

A number of traditionalists are planning to protest against the historic match which happens at Windsor Park on Sunday, March 29 next year when Northern Ireland take on Finland.

For decades Northern Ireland has had a tradition of no football on a Sunday for religious reasons, although a new computer-based system used by European football's governing body Uefa doesn't take account of such anomalies. This means that any negotiation on fixture timing has been taken out of the hands of the Irish FA.

Northern Ireland have famously played a number of games on a Sunday, such as when David Healy broke the goalscoring record in Trinidad & Tobago in 2004 and during the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain – but never at home.

Rev David McIlveen, a retired Free Presbyterian minister, said that sport was an integral part of people's lives in Northern Ireland and that the decision was discriminating against those that hold Christian beliefs. He confirmed he was planning a protest at the fixture.

"Northern Ireland has strong moral values that other countries may not hold and our society has been shaped by those values that we have been taught and grew up with," he said.

"To play the game on a Sunday goes against a basic biblical principle and is disrespectful to God's teachings. We don't have a right to tell people what to do but we do carry a responsibility."

Former Northern Ireland international and now evangelical minister Stuart Elliott said that despite having to play on a Sunday throughout his career in England he was against the Finland fixture being played on a Sunday.

"More and more recently we have seen the tradition of the Sabbath being eroded. I would like to see the Lord's Day kept holy," he said. "In the current climate I understand that people will have to be flexible with how they practise the Sabbath.

"Many people may have to work in different capacities but I would hope that they still maintain the values that go with it.

"I always found Johnny Jameson's stance admirable and would be against attending the game if it goes ahead," he said.

The best-known case of religious protest in Northern Ireland came during the 1982 World Cup finals when Glentoran winger Jameson wouldn't play against France on a Sunday because he was a born-again Christian.

His team-mate, Northern Ireland legend and football commentator Gerry Armstrong, said allowing matches to be played on a Sunday now makes sense.

"In countries all across the world – from Italy to Holland – games are being played on a Sunday and it's becoming the norm now.

"At the end of the day this is the profession that the players chose and these are the dates set by the profession's governing body, so it's set in stone.

"Obviously people are entitled to their opinion but I can't see it being a big deal."

Jim Shaw, chairman of the IFA, stressed the body was bound by Uefa.

"I sympathise with those who hold their religious beliefs firmly and respect their choice to protest, but it is out of our hands," he said.

Mr Shaw said that while he could not speak for the whole IFA board, it was his personal belief that the game would open the door to future Sunday fixtures.

Gary McAllister, chairman of the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters' Clubs, said that it was important that people understood that the decision had been taken out of IFA control.

Jim Allister, leader of the TUV, said that football would be the loser if the game goes ahead.

"I'm quite sure that there will be a significant number of supporters who won't attend as a matter of conscience," he said.

Poll: Windsor Park gets first Sunday game - Protests feared over Euro 2016 home qualifier 

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