Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Series of away-day tests await while Windsor Park gets its revamp

Waiting game: artist's impression of the new-look Windsor

Michael O'Neill is targeting third spot for Northern Ireland in their Euro 2016 qualifying group but his side are set to face the toughest possible start to realise that ambition.

With the refurbishment work at the new Windsor Park not finishing until 2015, Northern Ireland will have to kick-off their European Championship campaign with a series of away fixtures. Given the team has not won on the road in a competitive international in over three years, that will be a worry for the manager.

On the upside the back end of the campaign will be loaded with home games, but by then O'Neill's team could be playing catch up in their bid for third spot, which should ensure a play-off to reach the Euro finals in France.

There has been much controversy over the redevelopment of Windsor Park due to Northern Ireland Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin's concerns over the governance of the Irish FA.

Back in September, Ni Chuilin told the Assembly: "I need to be assured that appropriate governance and accountability structures have been maintained. Until that happens, I can't sign off on any agreement."

The Sports Minister's comments related to the return of David Martin to the IFA as Deputy President.

In 2010 Martin and then President Raymond Kennedy were forced to resign from the IFA for their role in the unfair dismissal of Chief Executive Howard Wells, which cost the Association £500,000.

Martin attempted a comeback on several occasions only to fail two competency tests, advised by the government, but when those tests were scrapped by the IFA earlier this year, the County Antrim FA official was voted back on board.

There was shock and anger within the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) following that move but after talks between both parties it seems the government are prepared to push ahead with the £26m project.

Work was supposed to have started on Windsor Park by now, but it is understood the redevelopment will begin in January 2014 with the finish date still scheduled for the following year, when Northern Ireland will play their first competitive fixture in the new-look ground.

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