Belfast Telegraph

Should Northern Ireland play Sunday football at Windsor Park?

By Stephen Beacom

The wind of change is blowing through European football and it is set to have a significant and historic impact on Northern Ireland.

So much so that our national team could be forced to play internationals at Windsor Park on a Sunday for the first time ever.

>>Click here to cast your vote<<

It's all down to the fact that Uefa have decided that some qualifying games during the 2016 European Championship group stages will be played on a Sunday.

Crucially Uefa, rather than the countries themselves, will now decide when the matches will be played meaning the IFA cannot avoid the possibility of a Sunday game in Belfast.

This is all part of Uefa's plans to maximise television revenue and exposure for the tournament.

For decades no Sunday football was allowed in Northern Ireland at all. Six years ago the IFA decided to change that rule allowing teams to play on the Sabbath. Certain Irish League sides have done just that, but not the international team.

It should be noted that Northern Ireland have played abroad on the Sabbath, such as when David Healy broke the goalscoring record in Trinidad & Tobago in 2004 and during the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain when Glentoran winger Johnny Jameson refused to play against France because he was a born again Christian.

The IFA and Linfield, owners of Windsor Park until the proposed redevelopment of the stadium takes place, have been against home Sunday internationals for religious and traditional reasons. Uefa are determined to take this new direction, though, and want everyone on board.

Obviously this will cause outrage for some, while others will see it as a sign of progress.

Over the course of the World Cup qualifying campaign, in which Northern Ireland infamously lost 3-2 to Luxembourg earlier this week, Friday and Tuesday have been the scheduled nights to play matches.

That will change once the Euro qualifiers begin in September 2014 with matches played on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. During a double header if Northern Ireland were to play on a Thursday their second game would be on a Sunday. If their opening match was on a Friday the next one would be on a Monday with the other option Saturday and Tuesday.

The draw for the European Championship qualifiers will be made in Nice on February 23, 2014. The hosts, France, will be joined by 23 other teams in the 2016 finals giving more countries the opportunity to reach the glamour stages than ever before. Normally after a draw the nations in the same group would meet and discuss fixtures with deals being struck. No longer, because Uefa will arrange when all the games are played.

And that's how Uefa intend maximising publicity and television coverage. For instance, unlike at present it is understood there is a desire not to have Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland playing on the same nights.

It is understood that the IFA, if they wish to, could ask Uefa to make Northern Ireland a special case and request not to have any home fixtures on Sunday.

Whether Uefa agree to that is open to debate as it could open a can of worms with other countries feeling Northern Ireland were receiving preferential treatment.

There is also the point that the IFA will have to ask Uefa for another favour relating to their fixtures and may not feel like pushing their luck over the Sunday issue.

This week Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin stated that she would not release the £25m government funding for the redevelopment of Windsor Park, until the IFA's governance was sorted out. This was in reference to the return of David Martin to the IFA as Deputy President.

Should the IFA and Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) reach agreement, and the former fully expect they will, the cash will be released and the modernisation of Windsor Park and re-construction work will begin but it won't finish until 2015.

That being the case the IFA will ask Uefa for Northern Ireland to play away games first in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign so that when they take over the control of Windsor Park they will stage their home Euro games in the brand, new spanking 18,000 arena.

Another new Uefa directive is that there will be no international friendly date in August 2014 which will please club managers who hated it as it came just a few days before the Premier League season. Last month Northern Ireland actually played a World Cup qualifier against Russia, after the original game in March had been postponed due to snow!

Instead of the international date in mid-August the European Super Cup will be played then rather than later in the month.

The first match dates in the new international calender will be on Thursday, September 4, Friday September 5 and Saturday September 6.

The plan is for countries to use these as friendlies giving managers a chance to ease their players in with games from September 7-9 being the opening Euro 2016 qualifiers.

Historic vote has helped pave way

By Stuart McKinley

June 1, 2008 wasn't a particularly memorable date in Northern Ireland football history. It was, however, a pretty significant one.

Before then Sunday football was outlawed by the Irish FA.

At an EGM in November 2007, a vote to scrap the ban was successful and it was officially lifted the following June.

Knowing that their own rules were discriminatory, those in charge at Windsor Avenue this time six years ago were relieved when 91 of the 115 eligible voters backed the decision – although there were 10 members who abstained.

Particularly as the motion had been defeated at the association's AGM just a few months earlier.

A fortnight before that meeting, in the autumn of 2007, Northern Ireland played Denmark in a crucial European Championship qualifier at Windsor Park.

Torrential rain left the pitch waterlogged. It would have been more appropriate for water polo than football with the players splashing their way around even in the warm-up.

The referee wanted to postpone the game, but well aware that the IFA's rule would prevent the match being played the following day the Uefa delegate dictated that it had to go ahead.

A 2-1 win had the Green and White Army singing in the rain.

Previously there had been a total ban on any team affiliated to the IFA playing on Sundays. That had to be amended prior to the 1982 World Cup finals when Northern Ireland went to Spain and ended up playing against France on a Sunday.

Manager Billy Bingham wanted to select Glentoran winger Johnny Jameson in his match day squad for that game, but as a Christian he declined the opportunity, and therefore passed up the once in a lifetime chance to play in a World Cup finals.

There have been further internationals played on foreign soil since then and some Irish League clubs have even played away games in Europe, but it would be another 25 years before actually playing Sunday football within Northern Ireland would be permitted.

The move hasn't been all that popular though.

Even six seasons on from the ban being lifted only a handful of Irish League matches have been staged on Sundays since Glentoran and Bangor met in the first one, in September 2008 after the match had been postponed the previous day.

While the match went ahead that day a number of people opposed to playing sport on Sundays staged a protest outside the Oval.

While Northern Ireland can now play at home on Sundays after Linfield lifted a ban on the use of Windsor Park so as not to run up against the IFA's new articles, the Blues still have it within their own rules that they won't play games on the Sabbath.

Do you think Northern Ireland should play football on Sundays? Leave your comments in the box below.

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