Linfield and IFA discover common ground over Windsor
Linfield have no immediate plans to leave Windsor Park and believe they are finally working through their differences with the Irish Football Association regarding issues surrounding the stadium.
A well placed source at the Irish League club has revealed to the Belfast Telegraph that following lengthy discussions between the parties a 'significant breakthrough' has been made which in the coming weeks will allow more Linfield branding around the ground on match days.
The Blues were once in control of Windsor but in a deal struck several years ago as part of the multi-million pound government funded stadia project to modernise the venue, the IFA took over the management of the stadium.
The transition has not been an easy one for those concerned.
Debate about Linfield and Windsor increased in recent days following a Sunday Life column from respected Irish League pundit Liam Beckett, who suggested the new 18,500 all-seater arena was too big for Linfield and diluted the atmosphere of old. He also wrote about the uneasy relationship between the Blues and Northern Ireland football's governing body.
Those comments followed revelations in this newspaper in March last year which outlined how relationships between Linfield and the IFA had 'broken down' on several occasions due to problems with the stadium.
Back then the name of the venue was causing particular problems and led to the Blues lodging an official complaint to the IFA. Linfield officials were unhappy that some in the Association were calling the ground the 'National Stadium' insisting that the new contract declared 'Windsor Park' should be part of the name.
Linfield, managed by record international goalscorer David Healy, were also concerned about what they saw as limitations in the club's use of Windsor on a day-to-day basis and on matchdays.
Those concerns have continued for the past 10 months leading to anger amongst Linfield supporters. The board have been frustrated too at how long the process has taken, but believe there is finally light at the end of the tunnel.
"A lot of discussions have been going on at board level. We have been meeting with the IFA every week about how to make Windsor Park a Linfield branded stadium on our matchdays," said a Linfield source.
"And there was a significant breakthrough before Christmas. The IFA have agreed to 95% of what we proposed and we have gone back to them on the other issues not yet agreed.
"What our supporters will see in a relatively short period of time, hopefully before the end of this month or in early February, is a lot of Linfield branded material going up around the stadium, both in the stands and a whole range of semi-permanent Linfield signage around the main areas that Linfield fans use such as in the South Stand and at the front of the ground, hospitality lounges and in the bar.
"This will stay up unless there is an international taking place or an Irish Cup final not including Linfield.
"It has taken much longer than anyone at Linfield liked, and the fans have been critical of that, but we believe progress is now being made.
"It is an ongoing relationship with the IFA, we have made progress and our fans will soon see signs of that progress."
As for the possibility of leaving the stadium, which they have been playing in since 1905, the Linfield board would prefer to stay and make it work.
"It's not something the board or club is considering at this moment," added the source, when quizzed on a move away from Windsor.
"What we have to do is make it work for us better than it currently is. It is in everyone's interest that the stadium has to work for both parties."
Whether that attitude changes at boardroom level long term may depend on what Linfield supporters have to say on the matter at the club's AGM in May.
In the meantime in the coming weeks those fans will see large Linfield branded covers placed at Windsor in the North, Kop and Railway Stands when there are no spectators in those areas.
It is understood the wording on the seat covers will be: Windsor Park - the home of Linfield Football Club.
The lounges that Linfield supporters use on match day will also be re-branded after club legends.
In the previous contract the Blues received 15% of the gate money, television rights and commercial rights from Northern Ireland matches at Windsor. In the current contract the Irish League's most successful club receive an annual payment of £200,000 from the IFA as part of a 50 year deal.
Meanwhile, the Belfast Telegraph has learned that The Oval is firmly in the frame to host the County Antrim Shield final between Linfield and Crusaders.
The match was originally scheduled for Seaview this month but Linfield lodged an appeal against the County Antrim FA's decision to play the final at Crusaders' Shore Road venue.
The most likely date for this season's Shield decider is Tuesday, February 7 and it's the home of Glentoran which appears to be the favoured choice.
The Ballymena Showgrounds was also discussed as a potential venue but The Oval is a more suitable choice for two Belfast based clubs.