Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016 tickets: Why were loyal Northern Ireland fans cast aside?

By Steven Beacom

Tuesday morning. Thousands of Northern Ireland supporters woke up to find an email from Uefa in their inbox. 'Happy Days, this is it... confirmation of my tickets for Euro 2016' was what went through minds as excited fans opened the correspondence from European football's governing body.

For many there was that feeling of joy. They got what they wanted. Tickets to see Northern Ireland take on Poland, Ukraine and Germany.

But for others there was disappointment, frustration and anger as they were informed their application had been unsuccessful.

Given that 50,000 applications had been made for 29,000 tickets, there were always going to be some who would miss out on the prize.

But with a priority scheme, worked on by the Irish FA in conjunction with Uefa, supposedly in operation to reward the most loyal of fans, there was shock when it emerged that hundreds of supporters who had religiously followed the team home and away in the joyous Euro 2016 qualifying campaign were told they would not be going to the ball after all.

Outrage. Fans were fuming and rightly so. They had waited their whole lives for a day like this when they could dream about going to see Northern Ireland in a big tournament. This should have been a day to celebrate. Instead it became a day of despair.

Some 'block bookers' (season ticket holders for Northern Ireland games) didn't get tickets for ANY of the three group games, though the main problem related to the match against Poland in Nice on June 12, Northern Ireland's first game ever in the European Championships and their first in a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.

As the morning passed, and with social media in a frenzy, word got out that hundreds upon hundreds of supporters, who had acquired a large number of points in the priority scheme, had been passed over for the historic game with the Poles, yet others who had never been to a Northern Ireland game had been given the all clear to see Michael O'Neill's men try to stop Robert Lewandowski.

So much for the priority booking scheme trumpeted by the IFA to reward 'our loyal supporters'.

The IFA, Uefa, the Belfast Telegraph and other media organisations were inundated by infuriated supporters demanding answers.

Amid the storm, IFA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson told this newspaper that he had been in contact with Uefa to tell them to resolve a problem that was becoming more contentious by the second.

Tellingly, he added: "The priority system was supposed to reward our most loyal supporters. We did some checks of the data ourselves and we were confident that the right people would get the tickets. The early indications would suggest that the system has not been applied properly."

A few hours later after more calls between the IFA and Uefa, suddenly a rabbit was pulled out of the hat. As if by magic, another 1,000 tickets were found for those "Northern Ireland fans at the top of the IFA's priority list".

Incredible. It begs the questions how many other spare tickets do Uefa have lying around for emergencies?

And why wasn't this sorted out properly in the first place? Without the emotional reaction from the fans, I doubt anyone would have cared. Fan power proved the difference here. GAWA 1 Uefa 0 but there should not have been a need for a battle.

Last night Nelson was making the point that no mistakes had been made in terms of the loyalty system where the IFA and Uefa were concerned in contrast to his earlier comments.

Uefa themselves stated that "the loyalty scheme for all matches had been implemented according to the scheme provided by the IFA" so how did they get it so wrong that they were forced into throwing around another 1,000 tickets like they meant nothing?

Uefa made a mess of it. The IFA, who admittedly worked quickly to try and resolve the problem once they realised there was one, aren't blameless either though.

There is a sense that the Association's lack of experience in dealing with major tournaments has not helped.

No wonder fans have been left with a sour taste. Loyalty was not rewarded, just given a kick in the teeth. Uefa have said they will contact supporters by the end of the month to dish out the extra tickets, but the fans won't believe that until they see another email.

Reports in Wales last night suggested there were similar problems for their fans over their priority based system while this week Republic of Ireland followers will discover if they are going to France.

They too operate a loyalty system with season ticket holders, regular away travellers and official supporters clubs told by the FAI they will have priority. We shall see.

For many Northern Ireland fans, France still beckons. They will back the team better than they were supported by the authorities.

Belfast Telegraph