Northern Ireland supporters fuming with Irish FA over Euro 2016 ticketing policy
Northern Ireland supporters are fuming with the Irish FA over a controversial ticketing policy which may be put in place for the Euro 2016 finals.
It is understood the powerful Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs (AONISC) have had a series of meetings with the IFA about how many tickets 'block bookers' will be able to purchase for games at the finals and informed the Association how discontent they are with the process.
Block bookers are essentially season ticket holders for Northern Ireland home games - there are 8,600 of them.
The AONISC, who believe they are affiliated to around 25% of Northern Ireland's support, feel block bookers should be able to buy ONE ticket each per game in the Euro finals, but some senior figures in the IFA are currently favouring giving the season ticket holders a chance to purchase two tickets each.
Offering loyal fans an opportunity to buy more tickets may seem an ideal scenario, but the fear amongst the AONISC is that if demand, as expected, will be great to go to France, some block bookers may miss out on Euro 2016 tickets altogether.
In their meetings the IFA and AONISC representatives could not come to any agreement over tickets. The Association have also been in consultation with Uefa, who are advising that the IFA adopt the 'two tickets each' policy.
In a bid to reach a final decision, earlier this week the IFA emailed a survey on the issue to block bookers to try and ascertain the views of Northern Ireland's wider support.
The survey asks if block bookers believe they should be able to buy ONE, TWO or even FOUR tickets for each game in France.
These are the options provided to each Association by Uefa. European football’s governing body manage the overall arrangements but allow each Association to operate their own priority system.
For the IFA that will be giving first priority to the block bookers who attend all the home games and the away matches followed by the block bookers who go to Windsor Park matches only.
Although the option of four tickets per block booker is on the survey, that scenario is the big outsider of the three.
Once the results are known early next week, the IFA will contact Uefa and announce their ticketing policy for the finals.
The IFA were actually supposed to have told Uefa by now about the ticketing agreement for Northern Ireland supporters, but have asked for a few more days to sort the issue out.
Already the Association have had over 1,000 responses and are expected to have many, many more over the weekend.
Ultimately the call will be made by IFA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson and other senior figures at the IFA with fans able to apply for tickets on December 14, two days after the Euro 2016 finals group draw has been made.
An IFA spokesperson told the Belfast Telegraph: “The single biggest priority of the IFA with regard to Euro 2016 tickets is to reward those fans who have supported the team home and away in the Euro campaign and give them the first opportunity to be at our games next summer.
“Therefore we have consulted with the Amalgamation and have now launched a broader consultation with block bookers to see which of the opportunities Uefa provide us with is the best. A decision will be made in the coming days and communicated to the fans as well as the next steps in the process.”
This of course is new territory for all of the modern day key figures at the IFA. They have never had to deal with ticketing issues for a major tournament given the last one Northern Ireland qualified for was the 1986 World Cup staged in Mexico.
After the criticism from fans following the unveiling of the new Northern Ireland home shirt for the Euro finals last week, the IFA are aware they can ill afford to fail to satisfy the fans in what is an even more important area — tickets for games that supporters have been waiting a lifetime for.
There is an understandable suggestion from within the IFA that not all of the 8,600 block bookers will want or be able to go to the games in France due to work commitments, finance and also because the group stages take place during the school term.
They do realise, however, that their first priority must be the fans who have stood by Michael O’Neill’s team — and paid good money to go and see them and cheer them on in Belfast and abroad.
Interestingly, only one other nation of the 23 who will visit France next year have decided to opt for one ticket per season ticket holder — that country is Belgium.
The Welsh FA have told Uefa they will take two tickets per person, although that has not gone down well with every Welsh fan while England and the Republic of Ireland are going for the four tickets option.
It is hoped that for Northern Ireland followers, a suitable conclusion will be reached.
This should be a time of celebration for the team, the IFA and the supporters rather than one fraught with disagreement over tickets.