Celtic v Linfield: Security fears over potential Belfast clash on July 11 - should venue be switched to Glasgow?
Concern as Belfast club could be playing in the city on the night before Twelfth
Police are facing the security nightmare of a possible powderkeg clash between Linfield and Celtic in Belfast - on the eve of the Twelfth celebrations.
The sides are on course to meet in what would be a highly-charged fixture at Windsor Park on July 11. They will clash at the second stage of qualifying for the Champions League on the Eleventh Night if the Blues beat a little-known side from San Marino in the opening round. The PSNI confirmed it is in discussions over a potential tie, which would come at a time when tensions are already running high around parades.
One option is moving the game forward from 7.45pm to a 5pm kick-off, although that would still require a huge policing operation on a day when resources are already stretched.
Andrew McQuillan, a crowd safety expert, said: "If you wanted to pick the worst possible day to hold a match like that, it's probably July 11.
"There are other competing factors for policing and security right across Northern Ireland on that day and that week.
"It's also one of the highest-risk games in terms of security that we have had here for some time."
However, Linfield officials insisted they are confident the tie will go ahead without incident, and are looking forward to what will be one of the biggest games in the club's history.
Blues chairman Roy McGivern said security issues would be discussed in the coming days, but said he had no concerns about staging a game on July 11.
"There will be discussions to be had with Celtic and Uefa and so on about the dates, and we'll have discussions over the coming days with the PSNI about any potential issues, but that will be managed and that will be looked after," he said.
"At the moment all I am thinking about is the footballing side of things.
"We will deal with any other issues over the coming days with all of those who will be involved in the planning for what would be a huge game."
Linfield, managed by ex-Rangers striker David Healy, were paired with La Fiorita of San Marino in yesterday's draw for the first round of Champions League qualifiers.
If the Blues progress they will play Celtic, managed by Northern Ireland's Brendan Rodgers, for the first time.
The first leg had been scheduled to take place in Belfast on July 11 or 12, although it is understood that staging the game on the Twelfth has already been ruled out.
Linfield have proposed an early kick off of 5pm or 5.30pm.
Another option considered by police is switching the two legs, and staging the first match in Glasgow, and the return in Belfast on July 18 or 19, to avoid a clash with the Twelfth. However, Linfield and Celtic officials are understood to be content for the first leg to go ahead in Belfast as planned.
PSNI Operations Superintendent for Belfast Norman Haslett said: "We are aware of the possibility of a Belfast fixture next month between Linfield and Celtic.
"We are currently in discussions with UEFA and Linfield FC about the details of the event."
Yet others fear that, with feelings already running high, the tie has the potential for trouble.
Mr McQuillan cited the clashes between Northern Ireland and Poland fans in Belfast eight years ago as evidence of how tension can easily spill over.
Supporters clashed with police at a roundabout at the bottom of Tates Avenue, outside Windsor Park, after the March 2009 tie, which Northern Ireland won 3-2.
"If you look back to that game, the streets became rat runs.
"It requires intensive policing," he added. "The problem is it's in a very bad area for what is already a contentious flashpoint.
"That could easily spill over on the day. It will be one of the most significant policing operations for a football match here in recent memory."
However, officials at both teams are determined that any concerns over security will not overshadow one of the biggest and most eagerly-anticipated club games ever staged in Northern Ireland.
A clash with Celtic, if it materialises, would lift Linfield's profile and provide a huge financial boost, generating hundreds of thousands of pounds through prize money, ticket sales and TV rights.
Mr McGivern, who said it would be one of the biggest games in Linfield's history, was unable to estimate how much a game against Celtic could be worth.
"It's a huge draw financially for the club. Already being in the Champions League is very rewarding, and you factor in all the other things I mentioned," he added. "For an Irish League part-time club it's massive."
Uefa and Celtic were contacted yesterday but did not respond to requests for comment.