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Coleraine chief: Irish League must find solution that nominates sides for European competition

 

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Coleraine chairman Colin McKendry

Coleraine chairman Colin McKendry

©INPHO/Lorcan Doherty

Golden memories: Coleraine chairman Colin McKendry with the 2018 Irish Cup but the competition may not be finished this season

Golden memories: Coleraine chairman Colin McKendry with the 2018 Irish Cup but the competition may not be finished this season

Linfield manager David Healy

Linfield manager David Healy

©INPHO/Brian Little

Coleraine chairman Colin McKendry

Coleraine chairman Colin McKendry says he's still hopeful the Irish FA and Northern Ireland Football League can prevent a "null and void" season and ensure three Danske Bank Premiership sides will play in Europe this year.

 

With football suspended indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, it's still unclear when - or indeed if - the Irish League season can be concluded.

The game in Scotland appears to be shutting down while the Premier League in England are exploring the possibility of playing matches behind closed doors.

But in Northern Ireland, there is no simple solution.

Seven Premiership sides can still qualify for Europe through the league or Irish Cup but if no more football is played, Linfield, Coleraine and Crusaders, as the top three in the league, could be awarded the Euro spots. It's a worse case scenario but there could be an agreement that Uefa payments are distributed fairly among all Premiership clubs.

Depending on travel restrictions and social distancing rules, clubs may not even be able to play European football this year but Uefa should provide financial compensation.

Playing games behind closed doors is not a practical option for the Irish League and McKendry accepts different options will need to be explored.

"I'm not thinking of a null and void season, I've never believed that to be the right thing to do but the longer the crisis goes on the more real that prospect may become," he said.

"All leagues are dealing with this crisis and we will find a way through it."

Coleraine won the League Cup and Cliftonville lifted the County Antrim Shield this year but with respect to the league championship, Irish Cup and promotion and relegation issues, the 2019-2020 campaign may be recorded in the history books as the season that never was.

McKendry added: “We may have to make a medical call, rather than a football one. We have seen other sporting events cancelled. I do believe there can be solutions. In business you must have a Plan B or C.”

It would take more than a month to finish the league season and Irish Cup but there is no indication spectator sport will return anytime soon.

Leagues will have to nominate clubs for Europe and if no more football can be played, Linfield could compete in the Champions League while Coleraine and Crusaders will proceed to the Europa League qualifiers.

This season’s Europa League and Champions League remains frozen and Uefa have already indicated to associations that the European places for any tournament that does not take place would be awarded on league position.

It’s a massive headache for domestic football chiefs but at a time when football has become irrelevant, they may have to follow what is happening in Scotland and raise the white flag.

This year’s Premiership winners were set to progress to the preliminary round of the Champions League and were expected to compete in a four-team knockout event to be played at one venue.

Those matches were scheduled for late June but it’s uncertain when or if it will now go ahead. Only the winner of the decisive encounter qualifies for the first round of the Champions League, while the other three teams go into the second qualifying phase of the Europa League. Windsor Park would be in the running to host it, if the Irish FA forward a bid.

But the longer the football drought goes on, the more likely it is that our season will be cancelled. McKendry says it’s important to have different options on the table, even if one is an undesirable outcome.

“It would be wrong of us to think we could miss out on Europe,” he added. “That would not be good leadership.

“I believe that we, as a league, can still be in a good position to play European football.

“It can be a tight schedule for the clubs and the travel around Europe is another big concern.

“But I think we will do what it takes to finish the season and determine the European places.

“We have to look at all options but if football is not achievable this year Uefa will have to make big decisions and financial compensation would need to be addressed.

“The sporting calendar is changing all the time but the football family will come together quickly and adapt. Like in any business, you need to be adaptable and flexible.”

David Healy’s Linfield, Coleraine and Crusaders sit in the European spots but no-one wants the continental conundrum resolved this way.

“The European places are big decisions and you always want to look back and say a team qualified for Europe by winning the league or the Irish Cup or finishing second at the end of the season,” added McKendry.

“Decisions should be made at the conclusion of the season but if the league is shutting down, Coleraine would play in Europe.

“It could be the top three teams in the league but there needs to be alternatives. It’s a worse case scenario and you must always strive to have sporting integrity.

“You always have to have hope but we must firstly heed the advice from government officials regarding our health.

“We will listen to the guidance coming from Uefa and our own association and NIFL.”

Belfast Telegraph