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Ballinamallard captain Richard Clarke hits out at 'unfair' treatment of Championship players in Covid-19 restrictions



Speaking out: Ballina-mallard captain Richard Clarke

Speaking out: Ballina-mallard captain Richard Clarke

William Cherry/Presseye

Speaking out: Ballina-mallard captain Richard Clarke

Ballinamallard United captain Richard Clarke has insisted that the credibility of the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) and the football pyramid in the country is at stake, with Championship clubs unable to play at present because they do not have elite status.

Former Crusaders and Glentoran midfielder Clarke has been in contact with representatives from the other 11 clubs in the division and says they are as bewildered as he is that the Irish FA have not deemed the NIFL Championship to be elite, which has meant the new season has yet to kick-off, leading to "low morale" amongst players in the second tier.

The Premiership, which was given elite status, started last month. In contrast, the Championship was supposed to begin this Saturday but the NI Executive's decision to have a two-week circuit breaker from Friday means it has been delayed once again. Players in the division haven't played a league game since March when last season was curtailed.

"We are a professional league and it is our own governing body that has deemed us not to be elite," explained Clarke.

"I'm speaking on behalf of all the players in our league and that decision has bewildered all of us. Morale is definitely low. We must start considering player welfare.

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"The players in our league need a voice and we are seeking clarity about the situation. We understood the reasons in March why football came to a halt. First and foremost, there is a bigger problem here than football but, at the same time, we all look at things that can help us and football is one of those areas that can take away stress and anxiety and be good for physical fitness.

"Yes, the Premiership is the top league in Northern Ireland, but I do believe we should be playing as well because we are part of a professional league. Are we going to be the league that is cut every single time when there is a circuit breaker because we don't have elite status? Overall the league will lose credibility if we do not get the chance to play all our games this season.

"Irish League football needs a pyramid, not just the Premiership. It feels like we, in the Championship, have been treated unfairly."

Regarding their decision on who is at elite level, the Irish FA say their definition "is consistent with what the legislation is aimed at achieving and therefore kept it to the highest-level teams that operate in men's and women's football in Northern Ireland."

Clarke stated: "Obviously the quality of player in relation to the Championship and Premiership is different, but I've been at Ballinamallard for three or four years and the level of professionalism, preparation, the week to week running of the club, training and detailed analysis I've had under Harry McConkey is no different to what I experienced at Crusaders and Glentoran.

"There are a lot of players in the Championship looking for a pathway to the Premiership, be it through promotion or playing well and progressing, and that is important for all football. That pathway and player development is non existent at the moment."

Clarke also claimed without football that Championship clubs face financial problems and questioned what he feels is "inconsistency and mixed messages" in that Championship sides cannot play in their own league yet have been entered to play in this season's Irish Cup.

He said: "If our season starts and we have played just, say, five games when the Irish Cup begins while Premiership clubs will have 20 games under their belt, how can that be right?"

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