Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

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

Windsor Park is set to host its first Sunday game. Fans pictured during Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifier against Russia. Pic David Maginnis
Windsor Park is set to host its first Sunday game. Fans pictured during Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifier against Russia. Pic David Maginnis

Northern Ireland will have to play a Euro 2016 home qualifier on a Sunday – despite calls to move the date of the fixture.

They will host Finland next March in the first international to be held in Belfast on the Sabbath.

The date has angered many traditionalists, who believe football should not be played on a Sunday.

Last night there were calls for the Irish FA to ask European football's governing body Uefa to switch the match to a weekday.

However, IFA president Jim Shaw said the matter was outside its control, and there was no chance of the game being moved.

"There is no option given in the contract for moving the game," Mr Shaw said.

"I can understand the anger but we have to accept the situation. The way the European Championship has been set up means we have no say in when the matches are played."

Sunday football has always been a contentious issue. Although Northern Ireland have played abroad on the Sabbath they have never played a home international on a Sunday.

Uefa, and not the countries, have arranged the dates of the upcoming qualifying campaign.

While Northern Ireland start and finish with Sunday games – in Hungary this September and Finland next October – it is the home Sunday date with the Finns on March 29 next year which the controversy is focused on, with fears that the occasion could be greeted with protests.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson called for the game to be moved.

"I think the Irish Football Association should be talking to Uefa about this," he said.

"There is no doubt that many Northern Ireland supporters are also practising Christians, as are some of the players on the team, and I think Uefa should respect their religious viewpoints.

"There are other days of the week when this match could be played that would not cause difficulties for any of the fans, and so I think the IFA should be making attempts to get this fixture changed. Ultimately this is a matter for the football authorities, but I would have thought some sort of sensitivity should have been shown."

The draw also sparked a heated debate online. Linfield striker Matthew Tipton wrote on Twitter: "With Northern Ireland playing on a Sunday in the next qualifying campaign will the country go into meltdown?"

Another said Northern Ireland football had finally been "dragged into the 20th century".

Mr Shaw said the decision to hold matches on a Sunday was part of a Uefa strategy to spread the international break over a longer period, maximising television revenue and exposure.

"Uefa have this concept of a week of football, and there is no choice for countries in terms of the dates which they play on," he added. "It's difficult, but we have to accept the situation."

The scheduling of Ulster Rugby games on a Sunday has sparked previous protests.

In 2004 Ian Paisley led a delegation to oppose Ulster's home Heineken Cup match against Leinster. And in 2012 a number of Ulster players objected after their tie at Munster was played on Easter Sunday.

From sun-kissed Greece to the chilly Faroes... get set for an epic adventure

Get ready to pack the sunglasses – but don't forget to throw in a woolly hat. Northern Ireland's quest to reach Euro 2016 is set to take supporters on a 20,000-mile adventure across the Continent.

From the exotic climes of Greece to the chillier and much less glamorous setting of the Faroe Islands, the road to the finals in France will be an epic journey taking in some of Europe's most far-flung cities.

The qualifying draw, made yesterday, has also seen Northern Ireland paired with Romania, Finland and Hungary.

But while the group gives Michael O'Neill's side every chance of qualifying for the tournament finals for the first time, it is likely to come at some cost to supporters.

Those planning to attend all five away fixtures will clock up over 20,000 miles for the return trips. The estimated cost of flights alone comes to £1,725.

However, most will be happy with a relatively straightforward group which gives Northern Ireland arguably their best chance of qualifying for a major tournament for the first time since the 1986 World Cup.

"I think we've got to be pleased," O'Neill said.

"You always look at the top nations, and Greece will be a very tough game but they would probably have been the one you would have chosen.

"There are teams in there – Hungary, Finland, Romania – who I believe we can compete with and get points from and give ourselves a chance to be competitive."

Already fans are beginning to plan for trips to faraway destinations including Bucharest and Athens – both involving return trips of more than 4,000 miles.

The qualifying campaign will also take fans to the Faroe Islands, a remote island group located in the middle of the North Atlantic with a population of less than 50,000.

Travel expert Simon Calder said it was likely to be an expensive campaign for fans.

"The Faroes might not be top of the footballing world but they're the most awkward of all the venues to reach by scheduled airlines," he said.

"Finland is a bit cheaper to reach, but if you need a refreshing drink when you get there be prepared to dig deep for the pleasure.

"The destinations that I'm really excited about are Hungary, Romania and Greece – all of them served from Britain by a range of low-cost airlines.

"They're friendly, fascinating and inexpensive. If you can make only one, I'd recommend Budapest – a gorgeous capital astride the Danube," he added.

Gary McAllister from the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs said: "Some will want places which are inexpensive to travel to, others will like to go to different places," he said.

"Then there are those fans who don't really mind. They will just go along and enjoy the football."

Republic between a Rock and hard place to make it

The Republic of Ireland have been handed one of the toughest qualifying groups for Euro 2016 – and been drawn into a political controversy at the same time.

They will face Germany, who have been crowned European champions three times, Scotland and Poland in a difficult Group D.

The Republic will also face Gibraltar after they were moved into their section to avoid a politically-sensitive meeting with Spain.

Yesterday's draw briefly saw the British overseas territory paired up with the current European and World Champions in Group C.

But European football's governing body UEFA had already announced that Gibraltar and Spain would be kept apart amid continuing political tensions over the territory's sovereignty.

As a result Gibraltar were switched to the Republic's group.

The Irish – who qualified for Euro 2012 – kick off their quest with a trip to Georgia on Sunday September 7, before hosting Gibraltar the following month. That is followed by an away tie in Germany on October 14.

The campaign ends with a trip to Poland on October 11, 2015.

Manager Martin O'Neill – who captained Northern Ireland at the 1982 World Cup – conceded his side faced an uphill battle to qualify.

"I think it's the toughest group but it's an exciting one," he said.

"We have got Scotland, we have Poland who we have played in a recent friendly and whose recent efforts (against England) at Wembley were not too bad at all."

The group will bring O'Neill face-to-face with his fellow ex-Celtic manager Gordon Strachan.

"They will be great occasions I hope," he added.

"I'm sure he (Strachan) is looking forward to it. I'm sure he'll be as excited as I am myself. It's tough, there are other groups we might have preferred to be in but we'll get on with it. Germany you would say are the outstanding side in the group, but there's plenty to fight for."

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