Fans divided on Euro ticket issue as IFA ponder next move
An Irish FA survey asking supporters how many tickets they wish to purchase per game at the Euro 2016 finals has revealed that Northern Ireland fans are deeply divided on the issue.
Northern Ireland's 1982 World Cup hero Gerry Armstrong has urged the IFA to resist putting a one ticket per game restriction on 8,600 block bookers and the survey results indicate there is a 50-50 split between those wanting one ticket or more than one per person.
The one ticket per block booker option is favoured by the Official Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters' Clubs but of the 2,175 responses to the survey, 50 per cent voted for one ticket per game, 30 per cent favoured two and 20 per cent requested four.
Belgium are the only nation at the finals in France next summer to adopt a one ticket per game policy while the English FA and FAI are going for four and Wales are adopting a two ticket system.
Meetings with Uefa are ongoing with the Irish FA yet to make a final decision on ticketing arrangements.
Northern Ireland legend Armstrong feels a one ticket each per game approach could leave thousands of fans excluded from the prestigious tournament. "I don't understand why fans should be restricted to one ticket per person when other associations take a different approach. I think the fans deserve better than that and the Irish FA need to keep pleading with Uefa to increase our allocation," said Armstrong, who famously netted the winning goal against hosts Spain at the 1982 World Cup.
"At least two tickets per supporter seems a more fair approach to me and I'd like to see the IFA and Uefa introduce that policy and release more tickets.
"If we are in the same group as the hosts, the French, people are going to want to snap up all the tickets they can but at least we should have a healthy allocation from a bigger arena.
"Supporters are going to end up buying tickets online if they can and they will be hit in the pocket.
"The IFA will also have to look at an allocation of tickets for players and I would estimate that up to 20,000 Northern Ireland fans will converge on France. Demand could outstrip supply and keeping everyone happy is a huge challenge for the association.
"A huge number have already booked flights and accommodation and will travel from all corners of France.
"Fans didn't travel in huge numbers in 1982 and 1986 because of the distance involved. For the game in Valencia in '82 we had up to 550 fans in a crowd of 55,000 which is one per cent of the crowd! That's what can happen when you are up against the host nation."
Northern Ireland fans are entitled to tickets covering 20 per cent of the stadiums - not a headache if the match is played at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis which can accommodate 80,000 fans, but the smallest venue, in Toulouse, caters for 33,000.
The IFA would only receive a 6,600 allocation for a match at the Stadium de Toulouse. Northern Ireland fan and block booker William Hopkins from Comber also believes the Irish FA should resist the temptation to implement a one ticket per block booker policy.
"I contacted the Irish FA and asked them what the results of the survey they conducted were but was told to speak to the ticketing office and they are closed until Friday," said the 67-year-old who will be based in Lyon during the finals next June.
"I'm a block booker and I voted for two tickets as there is a third person in our group who wants to attend the games. The third person is not a block booker but did travel to the away games in Bucharest, Budapest and Helsinki and attends friendlies.
"I don't think those supporters should be excluded. Uefa have suggested two tickets per person and I'll be disappointed if the IFA go against that suggestion.
"I want the Irish FA to be upfront and honest about this. If England and the Republic of Ireland can offer four tickets per person and Wales two, why should we be different?"
It is a difficult square for the IFA to circle.
Irish FA chief executive Patrick Nelson said: "This is completely new territory for us and we want to be flexible and fair to all. Obviously we took on board the views of the Amalgamation, who back the one ticket option. They are the organised voice of the fans but they make up only 25 per cent of block bookers.
"That is why we extended the survey to all our card holders, to obtain as broad a consensus as possible. We want to accommodate as many Northern Ireland supporters as possible in France.
"But the world of ticketing has changed since we were last at a major finals 30 years ago.
"We are locked into the Uefa computerised ticketing system and while they will listen to representations and recommendations from member associations, Uefa will be the final arbiter.
"I think most people can see both sides of the argument. No-one should form the impression the IFA have caved into pressure from one particular group.
"All our talks with supporters have been amicable while we try to find an equitable solution for all concerned. Hopefully we will arrive at that within the next few days."
Tickets for the Euro 2016 finals will be available to buy on December 14, two days after the draw for the group stages.