One of the Irish League's first Covid-19 officers, Ballymena United's Iain Black, says he's confident the Irish Cup semi-finals and final can proceed without incident, however he admits the Irish FA will have a big call to make if one of the clubs is hit with the virus.
Each of the semi-finalists - Glentoran, Cliftonville, Coleraine and the Sky Blues - have appointed a Covid-19 officer as part of strict health procedures to ensure the matches at Windsor Park can go ahead safely.
The officers have received training and the players, who have undergone Covid-19 testing, recognise the importance of minimising the health risk.
With 16 confirmed cases of the virus in a 24-hour reporting period, it's clear the threat to the Northern Ireland public is still very much real.
But as Junior Cup semi-finals kick off on Monday, the Irish FA is hopeful competitive football can make a safe return following its suspension in March.
There is a more intense spotlight on the two Irish Cup semi-finals at Windsor Park on Monday, July 27 when Ballymena United will face Coleraine (4pm) and Glentoran will take on Cliftonville (8pm).
The final is scheduled for Friday, July 31 at the international stadium, when the Irish FA hopes some supporters will be able to attend but the NI Executive will make that call.
Sky Blues volunteer Black, who has been assisting the club for 14 years, says United have taken all the necessary safety steps while accepting the risk cannot be totally eliminated.
"I would be confident and optimistic at this stage that the games can be played without incident," said Black.
"The clubs have taken the right steps. You can't completely eradicate a risk but we are following the Government advice and guidelines. The Covid-19 officers have received training from the Irish FA and, at the first sign of players showing symptoms, it will be dealt with by the club's medical teams and the IFA and NI Executive will be informed.
"If there was a series of positive tests or an outbreak within a club, then the matter would go to the Irish Cup Challenge Committee to assess what the impact is for the semi-finals.
"We are crossing our fingers that won't happen and hopefully no club has to go through that."
He added: “Procedures are in place for immediate contact tracing and any further testing if required.
“The players have been open and honest in their responses and, while never resting on our laurels, we will keep doing things right. I can’t speak for all clubs but hopefully no issues crop up.”
The United stalwart, whose early work at the Showgrounds focused on community relations, says it’s been a huge team effort at the club and he’s proud to be involved at this difficult time in the Irish League’s history.
“I wouldn’t say things have been normal but I feel the club has got back into its stride pretty quickly,” he added. “It would be a lot harder if you were trying to enforce regulations which weren’t widely known but as people are familiar with social distancing and good hygiene, that’s making our work easier.
“Things we have never done before have become second nature to us and it’s nice to see everyone back.
“Ballymena are the same as other clubs, reliant on volunteers and sometimes when you put your hand up you don’t realise 15 years later where it leads you.
“We are very lucky to work alongside our medical officer, Dr Brian Patterson, and our physiotherapist, Gary Crosbie. There is a lot of medical experience within the club and my job is to make sure the guidelines are met and the preparations and procedures are in order from contact tracing to taking temperatures.
“Health and safety has never been more important in society as a whole. Everyone knows David Jeffrey is a senior social worker within elder care and this pandemic has affected everyone. No-one is taking this lightly and David continually stresses to the players the importance of minimising the risk.”
An Irish Cup Final without fans may be unthinkable but it’s better than having no showpiece at all. That’s a huge call, which the NI Executive will not take lightly, and Black accepts clubs may have to dream of lifting the trophy in an empty stadium.
“That’s going to be an interesting and perhaps divisive decision,” he added. “In the Premier League you have matches with no fans and they have much bigger stadiums.
“I can understand why it would be more difficult to accommodate fans for the semi-finals with the two matches being back to back.
“We know how the semi-finals will happen and will learn more about PPE. The IFA’s medical team will ensure the venue is safe and our role is to make sure our players and officials are safe.
“We must see what the NI Executive allow for the final. Every club would be delighted to have supporters there but it is out of our hands. The right decisions will be made for the right reasons.”
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