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New Northern Ireland manager faces fixtures pile-up as Fifa look to 'rugby style' break

 

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Northern Ireland haven't played since their defeat to Germany in November and may face an extended wait to return to action.

Northern Ireland haven't played since their defeat to Germany in November and may face an extended wait to return to action.

Northern Ireland haven't played since their defeat to Germany in November and may face an extended wait to return to action.

Northern Ireland's Uefa Nations League games and a possible Euro 2020 play-off semi-final away to Bosnia & Herzegovina in the autumn could be knocked back towards the end of the year as Fifa plan to set September and October aside for club matches.

Northern Ireland have Nations League ties pencilled in for September, October and November, while the twice-postponed play-off semi was expected to take place in October with a possible final the following month.

The Republic of Ireland and Slovakia will contest the other semi-final, with the decider possibly being an all-Ireland affair at Windsor Park.

But Fifa's plan to push international matches back means that Northern Ireland, who will have a new manager in position following the departure of Michael O'Neill, may not return to international action in September and their fixture schedule later in the year could be a congested one.

As the Euros do not take place until next summer, the play-off semi-final could even be knocked back to 2021. The high-end Nations League games are extremely valuable to Uefa and are central to the lucrative TV deal that benefits all member nations so they are desperately keen to protect those matches in every scenario.

At the moment, Northern Ireland are scheduled to begin their Nations League campaign away to Romania on Friday, September 4, with a home clash against Norway three days later.

While the uncertainty around the coronavirus crisis meant those post-summer games could be put back anyway, the world governing body Fifa are keen to give sufficient space for domestic leagues to get up and running, as the "bread and butter of the game".

One option is for a prolonged break in November and December which could feature anything from three to six games in an extended rugby style Six Nations break.

The alternative is to add an extra match date to the November window to turn it into a triple-header and extend the length of the March, June and September 2021 windows to allow more fixtures to be played within that window.

Irish FA president David Martin said: "There's a Uefa meeting on May 27 when we should know more. They will finalise the dates and advise us when the games will be played."

For O’Neill’s successor, it could be a hectic finish to the year with possible triple headers in the winter.

There is a recognition that players can hardly be expected to play international football just as efforts are made to get the club game back.

With the beginning of World Cup qualifying pencilled in for March 2021, Uefa will find themselves in a difficult scheduling position if Fifa push through with these plans.

National federations are still under as much economic pressure as clubs, since they require international games for funding, and thereby need some kind of roadmap for the next 18 months beyond a rescheduled Euro 2021.

While the health crisis has created many problems at club level of the game, sources at the higher levels say it has actually fostered better relationships between the overall bodies.

There had previously been acrimony over Fifa’s attempts to shoehorn a new 2021 Club World Cup into the calendar, but the decision to postpone that was a key first step.

The governing body similarly backed Uefa and Conmebol on moving Euro 2020 and the Copa America. 

“The tension has calmed,” one source said.

Belfast Telegraph