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IFA homing in on a European boost for league champions


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Linfield manager David Healy

Linfield manager David Healy

Linfield manager David Healy

Windsor Park - or another Irish League ground - could be in the running to host a mini Champions League knockout tournament this summer.

This season's Danske Bank Premiership winners will qualify for the preliminary round of the Champions League and must compete in a four-team knockout event to be played at one venue.

Two semi-finals are scheduled to take place on Tuesday, June 23, with the two winners playing in the final on Friday the 26th.

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.

All this means the door is open for the Irish FA to convince Uefa that the National Stadium or another domestic venue is ready to host the tournament.

As the Premiership is the highest ranked of the four leagues represented, they would have a strong case and, of course, Windsor Park - home to David Healy and Linfield - has earned the right to host the 2021 Super Cup final.

Champions from San Marino, Andorra and Kosovo will also feature in the preliminary round shootouts and Uefa allow clubs the opportunity to bid to host the event.

The mini tournament was played in Kosovo last year and in Gibraltar in 2018.

Last June's Kosovan venue wasn't announced by Uefa until May so there is time for the Irish FA to argue their case. As well as benefiting from home advantage, the host club will also make considerable savings in travelling costs.

An Irish FA spokesperson stated: "We will consider lobbying UEFA re staging the mini tournament in Northern Ireland if there is an appetite from NIFL Premiership clubs for us to do so."

Crusaders Grants and Funding Director Mark Langhammer feels the Irish FA should make a move to host the tournament.

"We welcome NIFL and the IFA taking up cudgels to bat for the clubs," he said. "Whichever club wins the league need every backing that a home qualifying tournament can bring, not to mention savings on travel and accommodation. The prospect of hosting the qualifiers will give added spice to an already nail-biting title race."

A NIFL spokesperson said: "There is a pre-qualifying tournament and it's up to the association and clubs to determine whether they'd like to host the games."

The NIFL spokesperson added: “We think it’s a great opportunity for the clubs and are ready to help them seeking advice in relation to costs and other matters.

“The clubs can work with the Irish FA in terms of whether this will happen. You would have to assume clubs can cut down on costs and it’s an opportunity worth considering.

“From our perspective, it looks like a good opportunity for our league winners, in principle, and we are supportive of it, if it suits all parties.”

Last year it was announced that Windsor Park had seen off competition from Belarus, Finland and Ukraine to stage the 2021 Super Cup final, European football season’s curtain raiser.

And from July 19 this summer, the Belfast stadium will be one of the venues for the Uefa Under-19 Championship, with the final staged there on August 1.

The home of Premiership champions Linfield was refurbished in 2016 and has a capacity of more than 18,000 for matches.

Northern Irish referee Ian McNabb was on duty for one of last year’s Champions League preliminary round semi-finals when the official attendance was only 35.

The Irish League, which lost a European place this season due to disappointing performances, is 52nd in the rankings, ahead of Kosovo, Andorra and then San Marino.

While the Irish FA could make a strong case for Windsor — which could be in for a busy summer with boxer Carl Frampton reportedly set for a world title showdown with Jamel Herring at the venue on June 13 — there is no guarantee the higher ranked nation will be successful as last year Kosovo provided the stage despite being listed below Gibraltar.

At the start of the 2018/19 campaign, the tournament was held in Gibraltar, where hosts Lincoln Red Imps were beaten by Drita of Kosovo 4-1 in the decider.

This season it was held in Pristina, Kosovo and the local champions Feronikeli beat Andorran representatives Santa Coloma 2-1 in the final in front of 4,100 fans.

If a club other than Linfield wins the Premiership, the question arises of whether the mini-tournament be staged at their ground, and that’s a matter the Irish FA can clarify with Uefa.

If the Irish League winners don’t have to travel a long distance for the preliminary round matches, it would be a positive early result for the champions.

At the start of this season, Linfield produced European heroics, coming agonisingly close to making the Europa League group stage, falling at the final hurdle to Qarabag.

• Northern Ireland’s hopes of making the Women’s Euro 2021 finals have been dealt a blow with the news that goalkeeper Becky Flaherty has been ruled out for the rest of the season.

The Sheffield United goalkeeper requires surgery on a hip injury, meaning she is certain to miss the crucial qualifier away to Belarus on April 14 and may have to sit out a double header in June.

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