Belfast Telegraph

IFA to see damage report that will determine whether Northern Ireland will play Romania at home

By Steven Beacom

The Irish FA are intent on honouring their commitment to the thousands of Northern Ireland supporters who have already paid for tickets to see the vital Euro 2016 qualifier against Romania, despite the Kop stand's structural problems at Windsor Park.

It is understood the IFA expect to see an engineers' report today into the damage which will determine where Northern Ireland's next home game and next month's Irish Cup final will be played.

The report should confirm whether the Kop (officially the West Stand) has to be demolished or if it can somehow be saved and refurbished, along with the South Stand and Railway Stand which are currently undergoing reconstruction work as part of the £26m government plan to move Windsor into the 21st century.

Cracks in its structure were spotted last week, just two days after Northern Ireland defeated Finland 2-1 in a Euro tie when 4,000 jubilant fans on the Kop roared Michael O'Neill's men to an important victory in their quest to reach next year's finals in France.

While the issues with the stand and the possibility that it may have to be flattened somewhat dampened celebrations, we should be thanking our lucky stars that everyone got out of the ground safely.

There have been too many disasters and lives lost down the years in football stadiums.

IFA President Jim Shaw says that whatever comes out of the report, the safety of spectators, players and officials will be the Association's number one priority.

The second priority for the IFA will be to ensure that all those who 'block booked' prior to the campaign to watch Northern Ireland's home games in Group F will be accommodated when Romania arrive here on June 13.

Northern Ireland have just under 8,000 fans who have already purchased their tickets for the five home Euro 2016 qualifiers. They are known as 'block bookers' and all hold what is termed a 'campaign card' which allows them entry into the matches.

"All the block bookers deserve to get in no matter where the game is played," IFA President Shaw told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Our first priority is safety for all those going to the game, next is all those fans who have already paid to see our home games and also we obviously want to give the team the best chance possible to continue their excellent run of results in the qualifying campaign."

Shaw, a sensible character, is adopting the correct approach. What he can't do is determine where the international will be played until he and other IFA officials see the Kop survey. As of last night it was looking like either Windsor or the Kingspan stadium, with the IFA, fans and manager O'Neill all keen to keep the match in Northern Ireland.

The Kop holds 4,000. If it is deemed unsafe, as seems likely, and temporary seating is not allowed in that area, the capacity will be greatly reduced.

The North Stand can house 6,000 and even if temporary seats were placed in the Railway Stand (East Stand), where refurbishment continues, at most there would be space for 2,500 bringing the total to 8,500.

That would not be enough because as well as the 8,000 block bookers, seats are required for officials, sponsors, guests and of course the Romania supporters have to be accommodated. They will be allocated 10% of the stadium total and are expected to fill every seat available to them.

The only way such a scenario would be feasible is if some block bookers miss out. How would you decide that? Luck of the draw?

Should the Kop be ruled out of bounds, the IFA know they will have to look elsewhere and that means the Kingspan Stadium, home of Ulster Rugby.

A request would have to be made to the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and Ulster Rugby to play the game there. If that was agreed by all parties, Uefa would have to ratify the move. It's understood they will be sympathetic to the IFA on this issue while the Romanian Football Federation have told us they are watching developments with interest.

There are around 9,000 seats at the Kingspan stadium, due to host the Pro 12 final on May 30, which would be just enough to host the block bookers and everyone else.

Ideally the IFA would want 10,000 in the ground, but they know their hands may be tied.

"I would like the Romania match played at Windsor, but if we have to take it away from Windsor, we will do it," said Shaw.

Everyone should know soon enough, possibly even today and also the venue for the Irish Cup final between Glentoran and Portadown on May 2.

Belfast Telegraph


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