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1,000 fans at Irish Cup final test event ends Covid lockout

Clubs and supporters on journey back to normality claims Irish FA chief Nelson

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Ballymena fans at last season's Irish Cup final. Supporters are also set to be able to attend this season's showpiece game. Pic: INPHO/Jonathan Porter

Ballymena fans at last season's Irish Cup final. Supporters are also set to be able to attend this season's showpiece game. Pic: INPHO/Jonathan Porter

©INPHO/Jonathan Porter

Patrick Nelson

Patrick Nelson

©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

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Ballymena fans at last season's Irish Cup final. Supporters are also set to be able to attend this season's showpiece game. Pic: INPHO/Jonathan Porter

Sporting organisations, clubs and fans are celebrating after the NI Executive announced the end of the stadium lockout in Northern Ireland.

As well as 1,000 supporters being allowed to attend next Friday’s Irish Cup final, up to 500 people can attend outdoor sports events as spectators from an indicative date of May 24.

It’s a huge result for the major sports that have been playing matches behind closed doors, while schools will also be allowed to play sports fixtures against each other from May 24.

The Cup final at Mourneview Park will be used as a test event “to inform the future safe return of spectators to large scale venues”.

Spectators, teams and staff will be required to take a Covid test before and after the match, with proof of a negative result to be provided on arrival.

Access to the match will be strictly controlled and on a ticket-only basis to enable contact tracing systems to work effectively.

Clubs will need to make swift arrangements as the two semi-finals, Crusaders v Larne and Linfield v Ballymena United, will take place on Tuesday at the same venue.

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Saturday, March 7, 2020 was the last time 1,000 or more fans attended a domestic football game before the Covid-19 lockdown. Reduced social distancing measures will be in place for the Cup final and no food or beverages will be served at the game.

Supporter behaviour will be monitored and fans will be invited to provide feedback after the event. Ministers will give final approval to the planned relaxations on May 20 and there is now the very real prospect of up to 500 fans attending Irish League matches from May 24 as well as Ulster’s Rainbow Cup game against Scarlets at Kingspan Stadium on the same date.

Irish FA chief executive Patrick Nelson said: “This is another pivotal moment on the journey back to normality and we are delighted that football can play its part.”

Nelson added: “We have worked closely with our partners in the NI Executive and the Department for Communities and will do likewise with the two clubs who reach the final.

“We understand the significance of this increase in spectators for the final and also the importance of all attendees playing their part by adhering to the guidelines laid out and following the Covid testing requirements.

“We are confident that this event will help further the case for increasing spectator numbers not just for football but for other sports and events across Northern Ireland, which is something everyone wants.”

Only 500 fans were able to attend last year's Irish Cup final at Windsor Park involving Ballymena United and Glentoran. The finalists were allocated 250 tickets each and it was the first time football fans were allowed inside a stadium in the UK since the lockdown.

From May 24, sports governing bodies, clubs or venue operators must ensure compliance with social distancing, control numbers accordingly and have appropriate hygiene regimes in place. Indoor sports training will be allowed to resume for sports squads on that date.

There will now be pressure on the GAA authorities to allow fans to return to matches.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey welcomed the planned return of spectators to sports events and further reopening of sports activities.

Ms Hargey said: “I am pleased that, as a first step, 500 spectators will be permitted to watch sport whether at an underage game or a professional event. This is a good sign of progress for those who enjoy watching these events.

“We will also work with our scientific and medical partners to learn more about the safety at these events and later this month aim to run an event with a higher number again of spectators.

“It was also important to recognise the importance of unstructured sport in our day-to-day lives and to permit those activities to open up again, whether that be five-a-side football in the local leisure centre or Park Run in the local park.”

North West 200 organisers, meanwhile, are warning that any restrictions on numbers attending the 2022 event could make it unviable.


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