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Competitive football and GAA can come back in step four as Sport NI reveal plans for big return

 

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The Irish League has been out of action since March.

The Irish League has been out of action since March.

�INPHO/Brain Little

Antoinette McKeown, Sport NI CEO

Antoinette McKeown, Sport NI CEO

Philip Magowan

The Irish League has been out of action since March.

Competitive football, GAA and hockey can all begin competitive action in step four of the Northern Ireland Executive's phased return, it has been confirmed.

While the Executive's plan separated 'close physical contact' sports from the rest without confirming which of the country's big sports fitted into which category, Sport NI's new framework has provided some clarity.

Football, GAA, hockey, netball and basketball can all resume competitive action during step four while the three 'close physical contact' sports earmarked for a later return in step five are rugby, wrestling and boxing.

There are exceptions for 'high performance' or 'professional' athletes, who can return to domestic competition with no spectators as early as stage three, providing permission has been granted and each sport follows the 'Elite sport return to training guidance' produced by the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport's working group.

"These are treated in this framework as a separate category as these athletes are full-time and the transition effectively represents a ‘return to work’," explains the Sport NI document.

"The guidance applies to all athletes, players and the staff who support them to protect not only their health and wellbeing but also that of the wider community and healthcare workers during any resumption of training. There will be an ‘opt-in’ option for any athletes, players or staff with potential to be involved."

While the possibility for an early return is being considered by the likes of England's Premier League football, the chances of contact sports in Northern Ireland following suit are slim, with athletes such as Irish League footballers having outlined their concerns.

"There are obvious health concerns around a dressing room, of course," said Ballymena United captain Jim Ervin.

"You'll have 25 players and about 10 coaching and other staff packed in there and, if you have 35 people in there, it's a lot of bodies in close contact.

"It's true that players don't have to play if they are worried. We are well aware of that but clubs should discuss these matters."

The time frame for each of the NI Executive's five steps are as yet unclear as the movement between each step will be guided by medical figures rather than strict timings.

First Minister Arlene Foster has said that she hopes step five will be reached 'long before' December.

The full Sport NI document can be read here.

Antoinette McKeown, Sport NI CEO, said: "There is a huge appetite across sports, athletes, coaches, fans and spectators, to return to sport and many sports are actively planning how to implement the first step on this pathway. Sport NI's Framework aims to facilitate that and acts as an important bridge between the NI Executive's document and the more detailed protocols that sports will need to develop on an individual basis.

"We commend the leadership which sports have already shown in responding to Covid-19 and recognise that, through responsible actions within each phase and at each of the five steps of the Executive's pathway to recovery, all sport participants can play their part in gradually and safely transitioning NI towards a new type of normality."

The Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey also stated: "I welcome the publication of Sport NI's Framework Guide which will help our sports organisations to return to activity in the safest way possible as they follow the Executive's five Step Plan."

Belfast Telegraph