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Belfast reception for Republic and Northern Ireland teams 'looks doomed by timetables'

By Jim Gracey

Belfast City Council's controversial plan to bring the Northern Ireland and Republic teams together for a City Hall reception prior to their Euro finals departure looks destined to fail.

Irish FA officials will await receipt of the official council invitation before commenting, following Tuesday night's acrimonious vote to host the teams in recognition of their qualifying achievements.

Michael O'Neill and his Northern Ireland team have already been feted at a previous City Hall event late last year.

But a source at the IFA's Windsor Avenue headquarters has confirmed to the Belfast Telegraph that it appears logistically impossible to bring the two teams together under one roof at any stage prior to the Euro Finals kicking off in June.

There would also be reservations that the decision to extend the invitation was not unanimous, and, indeed, divisive.

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Our source explained: "There are only three international dates on the football calendar between now and June, and [there is] no guarantee the teams will even be in the country for long enough at the same time, as needs to happen.

"Even if they were, it would mean Martin O'Neill's Republic squad upping sticks from their Dublin training base to travel to Belfast and then back in the middle of important preparations for the Euro finals.

"The Northern Ireland team will be equally focused. Any reception could not happen outside the fixed international dates, as the players will be with their clubs. It is an organisational impossibility."

For the first two international dates, the Republic are at home to Switzerland at the Aviva stadium in Dublin on Friday, March 25 and Slovakia the following Easter Tuesday, March 29.

Northern Ireland are likely to be in Wales for a game against that nation in the week leading up to March 25, only flying back here on the Saturday or Sunday for an Easter Monday Windsor Park friendly against Slovenia.

Those dates coincide not only with the Easter holidays, but also the 1916 Easter Rising commemorations.

That leaves the week of May 27, when the Republic are at home to Holland.

Northern Ireland have yet to arrange a definite fixture, but even if there were to be one in Belfast, organising a reception around the games is likely to be deemed by the two managers too much of a distraction so close to departure for the finals.

"The IFA will consider the invite when it arrives and respond in due course, with the views of the manager paramount as, no doubt, will the FAI in Dublin," said our source.

"But looking at the fixture lists and training schedules, it does not seem feasible."

The best the city council could hope for would be for officials of the two associations to attend.

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