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Explained: The Irish FA rules that have caused controversy over Irish Cup suspensions for Cliftonville and Ballymena United

 

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Cliftonville's Jamie Harney and Ballymena United's Steven McCullough are due to sit out the Irish Cup semi-finals.

Cliftonville's Jamie Harney and Ballymena United's Steven McCullough are due to sit out the Irish Cup semi-finals.

Cliftonville's Jamie Harney and Ballymena United's Steven McCullough are due to sit out the Irish Cup semi-finals.

Cliftonville and Ballymena United have requested arbitration after their appeal against suspensions coming into effect in the Irish Cup semi-finals was rejected by the Irish FA Appeals Board.

Cliftonville are due to be without Jamie Harney for their semi-final clash with Glentoran and fellow defender Garry Breen for both the semi-final and final, should they reach the decider.

Fellow cup competitors Ballymena United are set to have left-back Steven McCullough suspended for their semi-final against Coleraine while manager David Jeffrey is due to serve a one-match touchline ban.

Confirming that the club has begun proceedings to seek an independent review of the decision, Cliftonville chairman Gerard Lawlor said the action was being taken alongside a number of other clubs.

Due to the precedent set by the ruling, Lawlor believes over 330 players across Northern Ireland will be impacted and forced to miss games once their respective teams return to competitive action.

The Reds are hopeful the move will not impact on the Irish Cup semi-finals, which are currently scheduled to take place on Monday.

So just why has the ruling caused such controversy?

The Irish FA Appeals Board issued a lengthy statement explaining the rejection of the appeal on Monday evening.

Several rules in the IFA's Disciplinary Code are cited, principally Article 15.3. It says that a suspension will be deemed to have been served in any match that is abandoned, cancelled or voided, unless the fixture was halted due to the fault of the club in question. It's worth noting this rule does not include a fixture that is postponed.

Ballymena and Cliftonville, in their appeal submissions, outlined their view that the rule was "‘clear, decisive, incontestable and not open to interpretation" and, as neither clubs was responsible for the cancellation of the final seven Premiership fixtures amid the coronavirus pandemic, the suspensions should be deemed to have been cleared during those matches.

However, the Disciplinary Committee (DC) had justified their original decision to uphold the bans by pointing out that Article 15.3 was not written with a global pandemic in mind and also by using Article 1.6. It says that the overriding objective of the whole Disciplinary Code is to 'maintain and promote fair play' and to ensure that indiscipline is dealt with 'fairly'. As a result of that rule, the committee had felt it would be unjust to allow the individuals concerned to escape without punishment.

Ultimately, this was the fundamental aspect of the decision-making process as the IFA Appeals Board felt the principle of fairness - particularly to other players who had not received suspensions - 'outweighed' the wording of Article 15.3.

That's the crux of where the situation currently lies as the clubs await external arbitration.

"While we respect the Appeals Board and their role, we strongly disagree with their interpretation of straightforward rules," said Cliftonville chairman Gerard Lawlor.

There were, however, other rules mentioned in the appeal submissions.

Also raised by the clubs was Article 1.8, which introduces the notion of 'natural justice and fairness' in regard to incidents for which there is no particular provision within the code, following that players should have suspensions wiped to protect mental health. The DC also cited the same rule but used it to back up their own decision to uphold the suspensions and it was this view that the Appeals Board sided with.

The clubs had also raised Article 13.13, which allows for the clearing of cautions picked up before April 1 but the DC pointed out that players who have already received suspensions before that date must serve them.

The DC said that as the Premiership season had officially concluded after 31 matches, none of the remaining scheduled fixtures should count for clearing suspensions, a point that Cliftonville disagreed with.

The DC had contacted the Welsh and Scottish FAs. Wales has already determined that suspensions must be served when play returns while their Scottish counterparts are likely to follow suit. Cliftonville, however, deemed the inclusion of external bodies' decisions 'at best misplaced'.

The DC had also contacted FIFA, whose reply was outstanding and Cliftonville said other ways to obtain guidance should have been sought.

Belfast Telegraph