The Irish FA is planning on allowing at least 600 supporters to attend Northern Ireland’s European Championship play-off final against Slovakia next month.
IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson said he believed 600 to 1,000 fans could be safely accommodated in the National Stadium at Windsor Park within the current regulations for the crunch November 12 clash.
“We believe at the moment that we can provide a safe environment for supporters to attend that game but of course we will abide by the regulations,” he told a Stormont committee.
During a sitting of the communities committee, Mr Nelson also said the IFA did not intend bailing out any local clubs that are in danger of going bust as a result of the pandemic.
He stressed the association was facing its own financial difficulties and needed to focus on meeting pre-existing commitments.
The IFA boss also expressed doubts over the economic viability of a mooted all-island domestic football league, insisting the figures did not stack up.
The issue of spectator attendance at sporting fixtures during the current four-week circuit break has become mired in controversy after a political dispute on the eve of the tightened restrictions being introduced last week.
The regulations do not prevent fans attending elite sporting events in limited numbers, however sports minister Caral Ni Chuilin has appealed to the main governing bodies to play games behind closed doors.
First Minister Arlene Foster has insisted supporters should be allowed, branding any suggestion to the contrary “preposterous”.
The difference of opinion between Mrs Foster and Ms Ni Chuilin flared on Friday when fans were already inside the Coleraine Showgrounds for the opening fixture of the domestic Irish Premiership season.
At Northern Ireland’s last home game earlier in October, which was prior to the current circuit break being introduced, 600 fans watched the 1-0 defeat to Austria in the Uefa Nations League.
The GAA already moved to stop spectators attending games before the latest restrictions were introduced while Ulster Rugby will also play its home games behind closed doors until Stormont reviews the measures again in mid-November.
Mr Nelson told MLAs that Friday’s confusion had been “regrettable”.
He said the IFA would base its policy on what the regulations allowed.
Sinn Fein committee member Sinead Ennis highlighted to Mr Nelson that Stormont’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser professor Ian Young had also advised against letting fans into stadiums during the period of intensified restrictions.
“I think it’s our job to obey the regulations as they are printed and we obeyed the regulations,” he replied.
The IFA boss added: “Safe capacities have been agreed, structures have been agreed, hand sanitisation and temperature checking and social distancing, all of that has been agreed with the relevant safety authorities for every ground and we abided by the regulations and will continue to abide by the regulations.”
Mr Nelson said football authorities in Northern Ireland had “led the way” across the UK in efforts to bring spectators back on a “safe basis”.
On the funding crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the chief executive stressed the importance of executive ministers backing Ms Ni Chuilin’s bid for a rescue package.
He said the IFA was facing a £3.5 million loss of revenue in 2020 – £2.5 million due to lost ticket sales. He said local clubs were “hurting enormously” by only being allowed to operate stadiums at 15% capacity.
Mr Nelson said the IFA had recently distributed 800,000 US dollars allocated by world governing body Fifa to men’s clubs in Northern Ireland and 100,000 US dollars to women’s clubs.
But he rejected the suggestion that the IFA could dip into its own reserves to save struggling clubs.
“We have a very wide range of activities that we fulfil on behalf of football throughout the whole of Northern Ireland and we need to utilise our funding for that,” he said.
“So, it wouldn’t be part of our plan at this point to dig into our reserves to fill further holes within member clubs.”
.@CommunitiesNI Minister @CaralNiChuilin met with over 70 reps from local sporting codes to thank them for the amazing work during this crisis, discussed ongoing issues and latest health & scientific advice and assured the sector work is ongoing for a hardship package pic.twitter.com/dmJSHlZCMU— Communities NI (@CommunitiesNI) October 19, 2020
During an 80-minute appearance before the committee, Mr Nelson and IFA president David Martin were also asked by SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan about whether an all-island domestic league was a runner.
“We don’t believe at this point that there is anywhere near enough money in an all-Ireland league concept for it to fly safely,” Mr Nelson replied.
“You know there have been numbers that have been thrown around that we as the industry experts get into them a little bit – you know we can’t make those numbers stack up.
“If anybody can make those numbers stack up that will be an entirely different proposition.”