Kingspan to the rescue if Windsor Park cannot host Irish Cup Final and Euro 2016 fixtures
Rugby venue poised to host Irish Cup Final and vital Euro date with Romania if Windsor is deemed unsafe
Ulster Rugby could come to the Irish Football Association’s rescue if Windsor Park is unable to host the Irish Cup Final in May or Northern Ireland’s big Euro 2016 qualifier against Romania in June.
The Kingspan Stadium is the most obvious viable alternative stage for the two huge clashes if repair work to the West Stand cannot be completed swiftly, although the Ballymena Showgrounds has also been earmarked as a potential Cup Final host.
Irish FA president Jim Shaw admitted the rugby venue was “a potential option”.
Engineers carried out an assessment of the damage after cracks appeared in the stand and the IFA will consider their next move after studying a structural report, which is expected to be delivered today.
Saturday’s potential Danske Bank Premiership title decider at Windsor between Linfield and Crusaders also remains in doubt because the changing room facilities, which are beside the West Stand, may not be accessible.
And it’s now a race against time to repair the Kop, which holds 4,000 fans, for the Irish Cup decider between Glentoran and Portadown on May 2 and Romania showdown on June 13.
The home of Ulster Rugby boasts an 18,196 capacity after extensive redevelopment work and it has already staged a football match when Crusaders took on a Liverpool XI in August, 2012. If repairs are required to the stand and foundations, ruling out the prospect of Windsor being ready for the international tie in June, Uefa are expected to be sympathetic to the Irish FA’s position, understanding that no risks can be taken on spectator safety. The IFA will then consider the Kingspan Stadium for both the Irish Cup showpiece and international clash.
An Ulster Rugby spokesman would only say: “The Kingspan Stadium is a Grade Four Stadium as listed by Uefa and we have not been approached by the Irish FA requesting use of the venue for domestic or international games.”
Although the Kingspan capacity is just over 18,000, half of that figure relates to standing areas and Uefa insist on all seated fixtures. The attendance at Sunday’s 2-1 win over Finland was 10,264 so the standing regulations could see some fans miss out in the next Group F battle.
IFA president Jim Shaw said: “We will have to study the engineers’ report before making any decisions but we have around 8,000 block bookers in our support and my view is we would need to have a crowd of 10,000 for the Romania game.
“I would be hopeful that Uefa would be sympathetic to our position in an emergency position if we give them good notice that Windsor Park is not available for use for health and safety reasons. It’s obvious that the damage to the stand is an accident and not a deliberate act.
“Standing is not an option because of Uefa rules but, despite its reduced capacity, the Kingspan Stadium is a potential option.
“Northern Ireland have also played matches outside the country in the early 1970s because of the Troubles but my view is that such a move would be against the ethos of what we are doing.”
Government-funded works at the national stadium were scheduled to be completed by November. The worst-case scenario for the IFA is that the West Stand may have to demolished and constructed again but supporters are keen to learn the extent of the damage.
Gary McAllister, spokesperson for the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters’ Clubs, said: “There’s definitely a lot of concern about this matter. We have asked the IFA for a meeting and that will happen after they have digested the details of the structural engineers’ report.
“There’s a lot of different scenarios concerning the supporters and whether they can attend matches so we need to have more factual information.
“I’m sure common sense would prevail and Uefa would be understanding if the game in June had be switched to a different venue due to ongoing redevelopment work.”
The Irish Cup Final could also be staged at Kingspan on May 2 as Ulster have no match commitments that weekend, with Ballymena’s Warden Street home also an option.
Fans did raise concerns over the IFA’s move to issue tickets for the Windsor Final exclusively through Ticketmaster but those plans will be scrapped should the game move elsewhere.
Glentoran and Portadown representatives were scheduled to meet the IFA today to discuss arrangements but this week’s events means Windsor may not play host to any big occasions for quite some time.
• Ballymena United have confirmed the termination of Gary McCutcheon’s loan from Crusaders as well as the release of winger Brian McCaul.