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Irish Cup semi-finals could become a curtain-raiser for new season, says Boyce

 

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Crusaders celebrate their Irish Cup win last year.

Crusaders celebrate their Irish Cup win last year.

Jim Boyce

Jim Boyce

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Crusaders celebrate their Irish Cup win last year.

Former Fifa vice-president Jim Boyce has argued the Irish Cup does not have to be kicked into touch by the coronavirus pandemic.

The competition has reached the semi-final stage with Cliftonville drawn against Glentoran and Coleraine due to take on Ballymena United.

The decider was due to be played on Saturday past but now the tournament is in real danger of being scrapped by the Irish FA.

Football in Northern Ireland is suspended until May 31 and, although Uefa have urged national organisations to do all they can to "bring competitions to a natural end", there are only three games left in this year's Irish Cup. Boyce believes if the matches could be played in August, it would be an exciting curtain raiser for next season.

There would be no European place for the winner as national associations have been asked to select their clubs for entry to 2020-21 Uefa club competitions on the basis of sporting merit by May 25. However there is still significant prizemoney up for the grabs.

If no more league games are played this term, it's likely the top three Premiership sides - Linfield, Coleraine and Crusaders - will be handed European places. Uefa want leagues to conclude by July 20, though this date has been described as "tentative".

If the Irish FA decide to play the three remaining Irish Cup games later in the summer, it would need to be clear on the issue of player registration, with only players eligible to play for the four clubs in March still available to participate in the remaining ties. "Without a shadow of a doubt, the Irish Cup could be finished later in the year, perhaps in August before any new season starts," said Boyce, who served as Irish FA president for 12 years.

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"In my opinion, we could do that but there is a problem which would need resolved and that is the issue of player registration.

"The four clubs would not be able to use players who have joined them after the original date for the semi-finals."

Boyce added: “If the player eligibility question can be addressed, then the tournament can be finished.

“It seems unlikely that our teams will be playing knockout football in Europe this summer but we could still finish off our domestic tournament.

“The Irish Cup is a special competition and, while there’s obvious disappointment football is not being played, I find it especially upsetting that players would not be able to taste that experience of winning a league title or lifting the Irish Cup.”

Clubs are also under financial pressure and would welcome the opportunity to grasp the prize money on offer for the cup  — £20,000 for the winners and £15,000 to the runners-up, while losing semi-finalists pocket £8,000.

If the Irish Cup cannot be completed, there is an argument that the cash should be shared among the clubs that have reached the last four.

If football isn’t played for several more months and significant financial assistance is not provided, clubs could go under.

Former Cliftonville chairman Boyce added: “It’s a total nightmare for the clubs and the longer they don’t have the revenue generated from match days, social clubs and sponsorship, they will struggle and that’s why I was adamant about the idea of sharing European money.

“Clubs need to have that financial pressure lifted to keep going.

“I’d hope and pray that clubs will not go under but they are businesses and they need to make money to operate.

“It’s professional sport and if the money is not coming in, clubs are under threat. I just hope we haven’t reached that point. But so many businesses are struggling and people are losing their jobs.”

Boyce would love to see domestic football played again at the end of June but he accepts that’s an optimistic prediction.

“The most important thing is to listen to the medical and scientific advice from experts and the Government but the immediate prospects of playing football again do appear bleak,” he added. “When is it going to be safe to play?

“In an ideal world, we could play from the end of June and complete the season in early August. I think the end of June is the latest possible date for a restart.

“The season could be completed in five weeks but I’m not very optimistic we can achieve that. There’s still a lot of talk about the virus possibly coming back so next season may need to be looked at too.”

Clubs will discuss the outstanding football issues in their respective league management committee meetings on May 11.

NIFL have stated: “The Covid-19 steering group, established by the NIFL board on 18 March, will continue to liaise with all relevant stakeholders to obtain further information to allow the NI Football League, and our clubs, to take important decisions in advance of the Uefa deadline.”

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