All matches off as referees strike
The kick-off for Northern Ireland’s much-hyped new Premiership football league was thrown into chaos last night after referees announced they would be going ahead with strike action.
The newly-revamped top tier of local football, the JJB Sports Premiership, was set to kick off tomorrow afternoon amid much fanfare.
But fans and players alike have been left disappointed as disagreements between referees and the Irish Football Association (IFA) reached a head last night.
Referees have been calling for an increase in their match fees from £70 to £120 per game, as well as asking for assistants to be appointed for IFA Championship fixtures.
Crunch talks aimed at breaking the deadlock were held yesterday and, following a meeting lasting several hours, the Northern Ireland Referee’s Association last night said refs would be pulling out of Premiership and Championship matches “with immediate effect”.
“The referees will not be available to accept appointments in the Premier league or the Championship with immediate effect,” said chairman David Malcolm.
“We are disappointed that we have had to make this call. We have given the Irish Football Association ample opportunity. Tonight there was a meeting that could have solved the problem and they chose to stick to their guns. They will have to clarify their thinking and explain why they have brought us to this position.”
Although the issue of pay was still outstanding last night, Mr Macolm said a major stumbling block remained over the issue of providing assistant referees for Championship matches.
“The issue of pay can be solved, the problem here is the attitude that the Championship is a league that can be officiated on its own,” he said.
“The senior referees are saying they are struggling to control these games.
“These matches are causing problems week in, week out.
“There have only been two rounds of them and so far we’ve had something like 12 red cards. The matches are being played in front of big crowds, the referees are coming under great scrutiny, the tackles are flying in, people are being hit.
“The referees can’t control these matches without assistant referees.”
The IFA had been given until 8pm last night to meet the demands, whereupon local referees met to discuss what action to take next.
The IFA said it would not be issuing a statement on the matter last night.
Among the teams due to take to the pitch tomorrow were Linfield, who were to scheduled to play Lisburn Distillery, and Glentoran who were set to take on Ballymena United.
The wrangle over pay had been ongoing for some time, with match officials asking the IFA to honour an agreement which they claim was made four years ago to increase their match fees on a sliding scale.
It is understood the referees had asked for £170 a game and, following discussions, a compromise deal of £100 was offered. This was rejected by the referees who asked for £120. The offer was increased by another £10, leaving the dispute hanging over a £10 difference.
The situation mirrored that of the Scottish Premier League, which struck a financial deal with referees earlier this week.
The SPL had originally only offered their match officials a £25 pay rise, taking their wage to £600 per game. These were raised to £800 per game to be paid on a temporary basis while negotiations over a permanent solution continue.