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David Jeffrey: Irish League games without fans would be idiotic and European money should be shared out

 

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Clever thinking: Ballymena United boss David Jeffrey says decisions must be taken to protect Irish League football

Clever thinking: Ballymena United boss David Jeffrey says decisions must be taken to protect Irish League football

�INPHO/PressEye.com/Jonathan Po

Colin McKendry

Colin McKendry

�INPHO/Lorcan Doherty

Clever thinking: Ballymena United boss David Jeffrey says decisions must be taken to protect Irish League football

David Jeffrey has dismissed the idea of playing Irish League matches behind closed doors as "idiotic" amid fears the season could be wiped out by the coronavirus crisis.

 

The Irish FA and Northern Ireland Football League have been mulling over possible ways to conclude the campaign but with no vaccine in sight, the virus will remain a major health concern and it could be some time before football returns.

Jeffrey's Ballymena United still have a chance of qualifying for the Europa League by lifting the Irish Cup but the global pandemic has slammed the brakes on sport and while social distancing rules are in effect, no games can take place, either with or without crowds.

If the outstanding football issues cannot be resolved on the pitch, the former Linfield boss believes awarding three European places to the sides occupying the top three spots - the Blues, Coleraine and Crusaders - is a common sense solution with Uefa payments then fairly distributed between all the top flight clubs.

Leagues across Europe are understandably desperate to finish their seasons and behind closed doors action is being considered but Jeffrey feels domestic football chiefs cannot entertain that idea.

"The thought of playing games behind closed doors is idiotic," said the Sky Blues boss.

"Apart from the reality that supporters need to be there, if it happens players will be training and playing again and they can't be eligible for the furlough scheme. So there's no finances coming in on top of the duty of care we have for the players both physically to be able to play competitively and also remain free of the virus.

"You would need to test players, referees and staff before every game to have any confidence the environment would be safe. You can't social distance on a football pitch.

"So playing behind closed doors does not make practical sense in the Irish League as you don't gain any income from it and in fact it penalises clubs because they can't furlough their players from the moment they are training.

"These are financially challenging times for all clubs and at some stage we will have to release funds to keep clubs going. Whether clubs play in Europe or not, we will get funds from Uefa and the clubs need that."

Jeffrey admits any decision to declare the campaign null and void would be a heartbreaking one but he is keeping his eye on the bigger picture.

He warned: "We simply have to make hard decisions to protect the Irish League and the game we love so much and the over-riding priority is beating Covid-19.

"As time progresses, we need to grasp the nettle. To me the simplest way forward is you leave the league standings.

"The Irish Cup forgoes for a season and the top three sides go into Europe but the money earned from it is divided over the 12 clubs, after expenses.

"This isn't Ballymena United's opinion, just mine and it's very straightforward.

"If we could finish the season that would be absolutely fantastic. Without any shadow of a doubt that would be totally preferable to anything else.

"But in terms of the priority of finishing the season in our current circumstances, it comes pretty far down the priority list.

"Sometimes you have to look across the board and go forward as best we can together.

"There shouldn't be any relegation from the Premiership but there may be a way to promote two sides and go with a 14-team top flight for a season.

"The question for me is how do you finish the season? You can only decide the top three clubs qualify for Europe and the money filters down to all clubs. Unfortunately, there won't be an answer that everyone will agree with but we must look at the bigger picture.

"It is obviously much easier to finish the Irish Cup than the league season but it's a cup competition and we may have to put it to the side. I'm just finding it hard to see us getting the three games in.

"Some people will need to put their hand up and we must get real. It's time for a bit of clever thinking."

The suggestion of handing out European money to all the clubs during these difficult times has been warmly welcomed and has been strongly supported by former IFA president Jim Boyce.

Coleraine chairman Colin McKendry said this week he was still hopeful the Irish FA and NIFL can prevent a null and void season and ensure three Premiership sides will play in Europe this year.

But he also believes playing games behind closed doors doesn't make any sense from a financial or health perspective.

"The Irish League doesn't have the television money that the Premier League in England does," added McKendry.

"Neither do other leagues in Scotland or England, so how is it financially viable when there's no money coming through the gates and there's also commercial activity based around the games?

"You still have to pay your players, officials and keep the business running.

"This game is all about finances and clubs trying to stay afloat.

"The Irish FA and NIFL came together to help the clubs out financially which was very beneficial.

"There are bigger challenges ahead but all the clubs are still managing their finances as best they can.

"If the crisis goes on for a number of months the clubs may need greater assistance.

"All clubs are businesses and need to act like they are.

"This crisis is going to have consequences for the economy as well as football.

"But the game is a nice distraction in life and hopefully we can all regroup and go again. Sadly, I feel we will lose supporters in the short-term.

"Older people and those with health concerns will feel nervous about being in crowds."

Elsewhere around the league, there are concerns regarding the European fate of clubs.

A Linfield source stated: "The danger is that if our season doesn't finish until September, we have missed the boat for Europe.

"Uefa might not hold on for the smaller clubs. They will want to make sure Barcelona are on the television in October."

Belfast Telegraph