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Earlier start to Irish League season is on the cards, says NIFL chief

By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland Football League chief Andrew Johnston has admitted that Premiership clubs may decide to start next season earlier to minimise the risk of fixture congestion sparked by hostile weather conditions.

Clubs are now faced with a backlog of fixtures after snow, ice and heavy winds disrupted the programme.

On December 9, four games were called off due to snow, and a further two matches failed to beat the cold weather on New Year's Day.

Then, Storm Eleanor forced Tuesday night's three Premiership matches to be abandoned.

The Glentoran v Warrenpoint and Cliftonville v Ballymena United games were halted at half-time, and they were soon followed by Ards v Glenavon.

Johnston admitted: "There is a review of the schedule every year but, after recent events, the clubs may go for a different approach and start the season earlier."

There will be a conference call today involving the Premiership Management Committee and it's expected that the postponed games will be replayed in full.

Some fans criticised NIFL for going ahead with the games despite there being severe weather warnings earlier in the day, and Glentoran had concerns about the condition of the playing surface.

Johnston, who was at the Ards game, said the officials had no option but to call the matches off in the interests of fans’ and players’ safety.

“The only time we had heard views that the matches should not have taken place was when the games were abandoned,” he added. “I’ve been in contact with the three clubs and the only one which raised some concern were Glentoran, who questioned whether the pitch was okay, but it passed an inspection and was rightly abandoned after conditions worsened.

“Clubs are the ground owners and they are in charge of safety. There was a feeling that the games could go ahead and unfortunately the weather worsened.

“Back in May we had put together a fixture schedule starting on August 5, but the clubs wanted to start the season on August 12.

“That gave us a week less to accommodate fixtures, resulting in possible congestion. I think that is something the clubs will look at again for next season.”

Meanwhile, Ballymena United boss David Jeffrey has hit out at Ballymena Raceway, the co-users of the Showgrounds, after the pitch was damaged by stock car racing on New Year’s Day.

The annual Winter National Stock Car Championship meeting was held on New Year’s Day at the venue, which is owned by the Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, and it left the playing surface cut up ahead of five home matches in January. “They just didn’t show any respect, they've just driven across the pitch, they really don’t care,” claimed Jeffrey.

“I’m not anti-stock car in any way, shape or form. The frustrating thing is that we have been trying to work closely and very hard with the council to make sure our pitch is in the best condition it can be.”

• Dungannon Swifts have signed midfielder Mark Patton following his release from Glenavon.

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