Hundreds of Northern Ireland supporters have already made travel arrangements for the team's autumn fixtures despite the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic while thousands fear they will miss out on the home clash with Norway on September 7.
Ian Baraclough's first match in charge of Northern Ireland is the Nations League clash in Romania on September 4 and after the Norway game, the side will finalise preparations for the massive Euro 2020 play-off semi-final against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Zenica on October 8.
Three days later Northern Ireland are home to Austria in the Nations League before a clash in Norway on October 14. A trip to Austria awaits on November 15 before hosting Romania three days later. Despite the uncertainty regarding travel restrictions and attendances, fans have booked in large numbers for the away games this year.
Baraclough's home debut as manager in September could be played in front of 6,000 fans if the Irish FA can convince the NI Executive all the necessary safety precautions will be taken. But that 6,000 figure would only be around half the number of block bookers in a stadium that can hold more than 18,000.
"It's too early to know or make any predictions and the IFA would say that too," said Gary McAllister, chairman of the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs.
"But fans have booked travel for all three Nations League games and for the Norway and Austria games it would be in the hundreds. I would imagine Romania would be the same as people move swiftly when fixtures are announced to try to get cheaper flights. Romania aren't included in the initial list of countries that have an air bridge with the UK so we must be mindful of that too.
���As the games draw nearer, people will ask more questions and some will have held off booking due to the uncertainty.”
The IFA are pushing for some spectators to be allowed to attend the Irish Cup Final on Friday, July 31 but their big concern is the Norway game.
A crowd of 6,000 would still represent a considerable financial loss to the Association.
Fans’ chief McAllister says it’s vital the Irish FA keeps supporters updated.
“I would hope to have further talks with the IFA so we can be kept informed and relay any information to the Northern Ireland fanbase,” he added.
“The key is communication. There’s usually high demand for competitive games. The Euro qualifiers were sold out so you would expect demand to be high. People have missed football and will want to experience it again but we are also in difficult economic times.
“I think the Irish FA should also give some consideration into how the financial picture has changed for fans.
“Football will take its guidance from health officials and that will be the biggest factor in any decision.
“We have had constant communication with the IFA since the uncertainty in March and that will continue.”
It is too soon to know whether fans will be allowed into Windsor but Baraclough’s dream is to have a full national stadium for a qualifying play-off final against either the Republic of Ireland or Slovakia come November.
“For the Northern Irish public to be able to walk down the street, cross the bridge, get into the entrance, find the seat they normally sit on — that’s the bit of normality of their life coming back again after this wretched period,” he said.
“We’ve obviously got to be mindful people have lost their lives around the world to this, but people do look at football as something that’s their route to normality, whatever that looks like. To have a packed national stadium at Windsor Park is something I can’t wait for.
“Hopefully that will be November, fingers crossed, and it’s a play-off final; a winner-takes-all to get to the Euros, that would be immense.”
Baraclough, meanwhile, wants to ensure Northern Ireland do not overlook the Nations League as they look forward to their play-off semi-final against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Northern Ireland lost all four of their games in the competition last time around — including home and away defeats to Bosnia — as Michael O’Neill prioritised player development over results and they were only spared relegation to League C by a reorganisation of the tournament format.
“The Nations League was always going to be taken seriously,” he said.
“It’s a competition we want to do well in and it is important we do well in it because when the next qualifying campaign of the World Cup comes around, the way you perform in the Nations League might determine what pot you get chosen from.”