Belfast Telegraph

England snub Windsor Park friendly for the second time

By Steven Beacom

England have turned down the opportunity to face Northern Ireland in a glamour friendly to mark the official opening of the new Windsor Park.

The Irish FA, as revealed in October by the Belfast Telegraph, wanted Roy Hodgson's team to become the first visiting outfit to play in the redeveloped stadium, but having invited them TWICE, the English FA opted to take up more lucrative offers from elsewhere.

It is now highly unlikely that England, the first nation to travel to play an international fixture here in 1882, will be in Belfast for a long time unless they draw Northern Ireland in qualifying games for major championships.

The IFA were hoping to meet Hodgson's team at the new 18,000 capacity Windsor in March 2016, but president Jim Shaw confirmed yesterday that they have moved on to other targets for what will be a grand opening of the £25 million government-funded ground.

"We tried on two occasions with England, but they have other commitments on the date we were hoping for," said Shaw.

"We felt they were the obvious choice to play against Northern Ireland at the official opening of the new Windsor Park, not least because they were the first country to ever come here to play an international.

"We will now look elsewhere and come up with appropriate opposition for what will be a wonderful occasion at the newly constructed stadium."

Shaw's comments come on the back of England announcing friendlies last month. Wayne Rooney will lead his team out at Wembley against France on November 17 next year and travel to Germany to take on the World champions in March 2016, when the IFA had planned to play England, who were last in Belfast in 2005 when David Healy's goal famously won a World Cup qualifier.

Early next year England go to Italy for a March friendly before meeting Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland in Dublin on June 7. They may also arrange friendlies with Holland and Spain before the Euro 2016 finals.

All of these fixtures will be big money affairs -much more than could be made from a trip to Windsor - and the FA will argue that they also fit the bill for boss Hodgson, who wants top quality opposition to prepare for the next major tournament.

The new Windsor Park should be completed for November 2015 when two legged play-offs will take place to reach the Euro 2016 finals.

After their fantastic start to the campaign, hopes are high that Northern Ireland won't need a play-off and could finish in the top two spots in Group F which will guarantee automatic qualification.

So far O'Neill's players have won nine points out of 12 and currently stand second in the table, just one point behind leaders Romania.

Should they finish third and face a play-off, Northern Ireland will play their first game at the state-of-the-art Windsor in November 2015.

But the IFA would prefer to mark the official opening of the stadium at a later stage, albeit knowing it may prove difficult to attract high-profile opposition for the occasion.

It's understood, for instance, that the likes of Brazil and Argentina would only start negotiations at $1 million while top European countries prefer to play each other knowing more finance can be accumulated.

Obviously it would be fantastic to have a big name team here to launch the new Windsor, but should Northern Ireland qualify for the Euro finals in France the IFA could bring Liechtenstein to opening night and the place would be packed with a party atmosphere assured.

One friendly game soon be announced is Northern Ireland's trip to Scotland just a few days before the Euro qualifier at home to Finland on March 29, the first international to be played here on a Sunday.

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