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Billy Weir

There are still more coronavirus questions than answers for Irish League football

Billy Weir


Irish League football is in lockdown until at least April 4.

Irish League football is in lockdown until at least April 4.

Irish League football is in lockdown until at least April 4.

A quick scan around social media on Saturday afternoon showed that the local football fan was as bereft of things to do as the Andrex puppy on a visit to Asda.

The lockdown, eventually, of the game we all love means that another ball will not be kicked in anger until April 4 following NIFL and the IFA's decision to do what virtually every other league in the world was doing and stop.

Last Thursday, there was the incredible situation that the FAI had closed down the League of Ireland season meaning Derry City's scheduled game with Sligo Rovers the following evening at the Brandywell was postponed.

However, over the border, things were set to continue meaning that Institute, the other tenants of the Brandywell, were set to entertain Cliftonville at the same venue on Saturday!

Thankfully a bit of sanity finally prevailed and the curtain came down on season 2019-20 for now, or maybe for a while, or maybe forever. We just don't know.

Like a shopper trying to reach that final packet of pasta under the shelf in Sainsbury's, we are in limbo.

Naturally the health of people, especially our most vulnerable in society, has to be paramount, not that you would know it with some of the decisions or lack of by our leaders.

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Who is right and who is wrong remains to be seen and isn't something that should be tackled in a football column but the impact it will have on our game means that we have every right to be fearful.

Linfield were the first to feel the very real danger of coronavirus when one of their players was found to have contracted it and quickly and very sensibly self-isolated, and we all hope that he is on the road to recovery.

This started a very slow-moving chain of events where the Blues' game with Larne was cancelled and Linfield put in a 14-day lockdown period, but it was very much business as usual for the other 10 teams with games planned for last Saturday.

I wasn't due to be at a game on Saturday. As a Christmas present I had been treated to a visit to a gin-making school, my other great passion in life, but like most of life across the island of Ireland, whether it would go ahead was also up in the air.

It started with 22 people going but like the Irish League by the time Saturday came, there were 10 of us, virtually bathing in hand sanitiser (they were making it as we watched) as we gathered together for juniper-based alchemy in the wilds of county somewhere between Dundalk and Drogheda.

It will probably be the final school for some time, each of us asked to select 10 or 11 ingredients to make our desired final product, but in Spinal Tap fashion I went up to 12 - like the Irish League but with less hangover potential.

And that is the thing about our local game. It isn't just about the juniper or the coriander, the Linfield or the Crusaders, it's about ALL of us - players, managers, coaches, fans, sponsors, officials, tea ladies, kit-men and everyone who comes together to make your own tipple of choice.

I mentioned Crusaders. In many ways they have become a trailblazer for the league, having gone semi-pro, and the potential long lay-off could have a devastating impact for everyone at Seaview.

Barcelona's motto is 'more than a club' and that's what the Crues are striving to become. Match day at Seaview is only a drop in the ocean of what else goes on at the Shore Road venue, with the facilities used - and crucially paid for - by large numbers not connected to Crusaders FC.

They also have a restaurant and it is also used for social functions but all that is likely to be knocked on the head too for some considerable time.

"We decided to take a week off - simply close down the club. Everything was happening very much at a pace," explained manager Stephen Baxter last week as they shut up shop.

"As the week was progressing, things were changing rapidly, literally day to day and then hour to hour.

"We were preparing for a big game with Glentoran and then, suddenly, it all stopped.

"Once England and Scotland took the decision to shut down, we did the right thing by following them."

So now we have stopped, maybe the government or the Assembly will catch themselves on and catch up with schools, pubs and the like, but if it takes them as long to do that as it did to get back to Stormont we may have a wait.

Larne and Glentoran are two other clubs who have gone down the semi-pro route with considerable financial backing from their respective benefactors but with businesses already going to the wall, will that funding still be around in the future? If not, you are genuinely fearful of what could happen.

What shouldn't happen is, like the poor lad at Linfield, being trolled by rival 'supporters' who should just get a grip of themselves. This is a time to be united, even if you can't stand a team called United, Swifts, Town or whatever.

There are so many questions but as we all continue to swirl around in a maelstrom of confusion it is hard to see the tunnel never mind a chink of light at the end of it.

There are so many questions that need to be answered and can't really be until things become a little clearer.

When will we start playing again? Saturday, April 4 is the answer at the moment but highly unlikely.

Will the season finish now or be started up again when a degree of normality resumes? Unlike the Premier League where the bookies have already paid out on Liverpool being champions, or in Chile where they declared the leaders the champions, you can't do that here.

Linfield are four points ahead with seven games to go. Stop it now and it would be a legal minefield with the chasing pack demanding justice, while at the other end Institute's best hope of staying in the top division is for things to come to a halt now.

That, though, has a huge impact on the Championship, where Portadown boss Matthew Tipton called this week for the season to be reduced, but again I can't see that being too popular with the likes of Ballinamallard United and Loughgall who are chasing them.

What about wages? With no money coming in through the gates, the biggest and for some only means of revenue, do clubs have to make a huge decision and suspend wages, like Drogheda United have done? It is a different scenario in the south as their season has just started but the difficulty here is that most clubs pay their players until May. If the season is extended to say June or even July, do they pay up until then?

What about contracts? A lot of players will be coming to the end of their current deals, with some already having penned pre-contracts with other clubs, but these now must be up in the air too. Do you have the bizarre situation of a player from Linfield signing a deal to join Larne and then with the season extended possibly playing against his former side in June?

What about Europe? With all European competitions stopped until further notice, the jackpot that was qualifying for continental competition is now further away than ever. Northern Ireland had lost one of the sought-after spots for next season but if things aren't sorted out, will that be carried on for another year? Plus, if the leagues aren't finished by early summer, is it realistic for part-time players that the Champions League and Europa League could start almost immediately?

Will some clubs go to the wall? It could happen. The one thing that local clubs have in their favour, on this occasion, is that they are still largely run by committees and volunteers. The likes of Larne, Crusaders, Linfield and Glentoran would certainly have more salaries to pay out and it stands to reason that with job cuts being announced across the globe that some clubs will have to follow suit. Also most are sponsored by fans who have a bit of spare dosh at their disposal and that is going to be in much shorter supply than previously.

Will the IFA and NIFL help out? With no money coming in and bills still to pay, clubs are already appealing to the powers-that-be to help them out, whether it be through loans or support.

Does training continue? At the moment this seems to be still at the discretion of the clubs. Some are continuing on a smaller scale, some have provided their players with individual programmes to do away from the club and some have just called a halt altogether.

Will the Irish Cup be played? We are at the semi-final stage, the clash between Coleraine and Ballymena United originally scheduled for Friday, April 3, the day before the planned restoration of football, so that ain't going to happen. Trying to squeeze two more games into the final programme of matches is going to mean a logistical nightmare but for Ballymena and more than likely Glentoran and Cliftonville, it is their only realistic hope of European qualification.

Those are some of the footballing questions and concerns but, as David Jeffrey said earlier this week, there is much more to worry about.

"From a sporting level it may be disappointing and frustrating but you have to look at the wider picture here and there are much more important things than football and sport and we must do all we can to help at this time," he said.

Along with the likes of Glenavon chairman Adrian Teer, he also raised the financial implications of a prolonged leave of absence.

"Irish League football is an occupation for folk involved in the game. It has been interesting to note that government is putting money aside for people not being able to work or earn," added Jeffrey.

"I would have thought that through the Irish FA and NIFL, clubs could be compensated and helped. While it is a sport, it is also business. I would suggest that there could be some form of financial help and support for clubs through this period. We have some players whereby playing in Irish League football is their only form of income. Consideration has to be given to that by government."

Teer stressed: "Clubs will be expecting to hear what support the governing bodies may be able to give clubs. It's a struggle for all of us. We rely very heavily on the income we receive on match days as a whole. It's not just the gate receipts but also the bar takings, the merchandise sold from the club shop and other avenues like that.

"When you lose all of those, obviously our forecasts are down and we have to try to balance the books. We will be looking for some guidance from NIFL and from the Irish FA."

A huge amount of questions and not a lot of answers at this stage.

The local game has come through crises before, the First and Second World Wars, the Troubles and the foot and mouth outbreak, but this is a huge challenge for everyone, not just football. It will be back when it is safe to do so and that has to be the only governing factor. Until then, try and stay calm and stay safe.

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