Belfast Telegraph

We're not going to Kop out yet

IFA desperate to keep vital clash with Romania at Windsor

By Stuart McKinley

Many people in Northern Ireland are sticklers for traditions being maintained - and the Irish FA is no different.

Which is why moves are already being made to ensure that Northern Ireland WILL play Romania at Windsor Park on Saturday June 13.

It is almost 80 years since a home international in Northern Ireland was staged anywhere but Windsor and although structural damage to the stadium's West Stand is set to see it being condemned within days, the IFA aren't prepared to let it have an adverse impact on Michael O'Neill's quest to take the team to a first European Championship finals.

It is hoped that a detailed report on the condition of the West Stand will be handed to the IFA on Tuesday and, whatever that says, it will then allow Windsor Avenue chiefs to begin drawing up plans to stage the Euro 2016 qualifier against the Romanians at the south Belfast venue.

The potential of incurring a wrath from Uefa is also understood to be part of the reason why the focus is now on playing the game at Windsor, rather than shifting to Ulster Rugby's Kingspan Stadium - although IFA president Jim Shaw doesn't anticipate financial penalties being imposed if they are forced to move the game.

Contractors, O'Hare and McGovern, have been placed on stand-by to prioritise the completion of the spectator facilities at old Railway Stand end of the ground so that it can be ready for use in mid-June.

Currently the outside steel work is all in place and the concrete has been set, but the inside is still little more than a shell and no seats have been installed either. While it isn't simply a matter of putting the seats in and opening it up to fans, with over two months to go before the Romanians visit Belfast it is hoped it will be fit to house the spectators who otherwise would have been on the Kop.

Temporary seating is also an option that will be considered and the current dressing room units, which have been deemed unsafe for use in their current position, could also be moved to a different part of the ground.

"We are waiting for the inspection report to come our way and then at least we will know where we stand," said Shaw.

"There are obviously other parties and other matches that this affects, with Linfield's two remaining home fixtures being hit and the Irish Cup final.

"We don't know at this stage what decision we will have to make with regards to the Romania game - we will be able to move on that when the report comes in - but my personal preference would be to keep it at Windsor Park if at all possible because I feel it's important that we play there for the sake of the team."

Northern Ireland fans were angered when a 2010 World Cup qualifier against Poland was switched from Szczecin to Chorzow - some 350 miles away - late in the day and while a move from Windsor to the Kingspan would involve only a change of venue in the same city, it would leave the IFA wide open to a protest from Romania as it is within their 120-day notice period.

There had been suggestions that Wales were considering moving their remaining home games in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign to the bigger Millennium Stadium after their June fixture with Belgium at the Cardiff City Stadium sold out.

That, however, was deemed a non-starter by the FA of Wales because under Uefa rules the venue can't be changed less than 120 days before the fixture is scheduled to take place.

The Romanians will be here in only 10 weeks - although sorting out a potential legal wrangle over who is at fault for the damage to the Kop Stand's foundations will take a lot longer than that, with a replacement expected to cost a cool £8m.

"There is the four-mouth rule, which everyone has to abide by, but Uefa would have to consider the health and safety of the players and spectators and, hypothetically at least, there could be situations where a stadium is perfectly safe four months in advance, but is then unusable a week or two before the match," said Shaw.

"I expect Uefa would be sympathetic in those circumstances, when it is no fault of the association."

The option of moving to the Kingspan is, therefore, still on the table and will remain so until confirmation that Windsor will be fit for purpose on June 13 is received.

There are no stumbling blocks as far as using the Kingspan Stadium is concerned as it was approved by Uefa after a visit last year. The IFA invited officials from the European governing body to inspected Ulster Rugby's home as a contingency plan should the work at Windsor Park affect the staging of matches.

They'll be glad they did, but Windsor is still very much the preferred option.

It is almost certain that the Irish Cup final will move, with even those in charge of running the Ballymena Showgrounds anticipating a call from the IFA.

With a capacity of 3,811 temporary seating would have to be used to cater for the expected attendance at the Glentoran v Portadown showpiece on Saturday May 2.

There are few, if any, other options open for the IFA to consider and there is no possibility of Northern Ireland using the same venue as the last time they played away from Windsor, against Wales back in 1936 - Celtic Park is now a shopping centre.

Belfast Telegraph


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