Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland boosted by new date for Russia clash

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland will play their World Cup qualifier with Russia at Windsor Park on August 14.

That date represents a significant victory for the Irish Football Association, which should delight Michael O'Neill.

The Northern Ireland boss feared that the match, postponed last month due to snowstorms in Belfast, would be played in June, long after the season had ended for his players with many on holidays and Manchester United defender Jonny Evans on honeymoon.

The Russians were supremely confident that they would get their way, but in a meeting yesterday they did not reckon on IFA President Jim Shaw and Chief Executive Patrick Nelson putting forward such a strong argument that Fifa officials opted to ditch the June idea and move the match to August instead.

That left the Russians reeling because Fabio Capello's side had agreed a money spinning friendly against Argentina.

When the Group F qualifier was originally postponed, not once but twice in March, O'Neill suggested he would prefer to play in May, but he'll settle for August as his players will have completed their pre-season training and ought to be fit and ready rather than in wind down summer mode.

The August date also means he won't have that awkward task of persuading players to leave the joys of a sunny beach or pool in an exotic location to turn out for their country.

The last decade has shown that most of Northern Ireland's top players aren't interested in June matches – certainly friendlies.

The game with Russia is of course a World Cup fixture and you would like to think all would have turned up for that... though now we will never know.

Credit must be given to Shaw and Nelson for that. I've often been critical of the IFA, but both deserve high praise for their efforts in talks with the Russian delegation and Fifa yesterday.

The G8 summit was one issue that was raised and the policing concerns that would crop up had the game gone ahead in June with the PSNI preparing for the arrival of world leaders to Fermanagh the following week.

Off the pitch the IFA defeated their Russian counterparts. Hopefully O'Neill's players will do the same on it in August and end a 13 match winless run for the country.

The IFA will make a statement today outlining the new date.

Supporters should note that if they bought tickets for the March match they will be valid in August.

Meanwhile Sky Sports are promoting coverage of a friendly on their website between Northern Ireland and world champions Spain on June 6 at the Bernabeu.

When it was announced recently that the Republic of Ireland would play the Spanish in New York on June 11, any hopes of taking on Xavi, Iniesta and co appeared to be dashed. The IFA had no comment to make, though after passing a severe Russian test, you never know what they'll pull out of the hat next.

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