O’Neill must win battle with Russia over new date
The rearrangement of Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifier against Russia looks set to become a thorny issue, with none of the available dates likely to please both parties.
The Group F match, which was postponed on Friday night and again on Saturday afternoon due to heavy snow and icy playing conditions at Windsor Park, will need to be played before the end of qualifying in October, but discussions are set to be less than straightforward.
Russia face Portugal on June 7 and would be keen to fit in a trip to Belfast following that to make a double header.
But the Irish Football Association are against scheduling the game several weeks after the end of the British domestic season, when players will have been out of full-time training and may have holidays booked.
An international date also exists on August 14, but Russia have already agreed to face Argentina in a friendly.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has suggested slotting in a fixture at the end of May, but the most likely date in that window — May 31 — falls the day before key man Jonny Evans' wedding.
Negotiations between the Northern Irish and Russian associations will not take place until after the Israel game tomorrow, and if no agreement is reached FIFA will be called on to nominate the date.
Assessing the options available to his side, O'Neill said: “When we come to talk about the new date, I'll have to take into account that a game in June is well after the players' club season is over.
“If we play on one of the international dates in June that could be four to six weeks since the players were in regular football — well into their summer break. That would not be ideal especially as its also at the end of a long, hard season.
“August is also an option but it would mean Russia cancelling their planned friendly with Argentina and I'm not sure they'd be willing to do that.
“So I'll be looking at a May date. If possible, I'm going for a date in May as close to the end of the season as possible.
“I know it may not be an international date, but I'm hoping something can be arranged.”
The Northern Ireland players trained at Jordanstown yesterday, while on Saturday they had to go to Ballymena to find a pitch without snow.
O’Neill was concerned the players needed to use the pent-up energy that had been built up ahead of the expected Russia game.
“The players were doing everything they could do to approach the Russia game as if it was going on, (with) our schedule readjusted but they stayed professional,” admitted O’Neill.
“We trained on Saturday but had to do it in Ballymena, as the pitches were covered locally, so that was another challenge.
“But the players have been great. We pre-empted the bad weather and finished final preparation on Thursday when we trained, and now we look to another fixture.
“Of course it’s always disappointing to have games called off. Having two home games back to back is a big opportunity to get two results.
“Come Tuesday, we will still be fresh and ready to play.
“The good thing is, we’ve had a break and will feel totally fresh while Israel have come away from a tough game against Portugal in Tel Aviv.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital