| 14.7°C Belfast

Irish League could return sooner than we thought, predicts Cliftonville chief Lawlor



Test case: Cliftonville and Glentoran will face off in the Irish Cup later this month

Test case: Cliftonville and Glentoran will face off in the Irish Cup later this month

©INPHO/Declan Roughan

Test case: Cliftonville and Glentoran will face off in the Irish Cup later this month

Cliftonville chairman Gerard Lawlor says he's hopeful of the Danske Bank Premiership's swift return, provided health experts give the green light for the domestic game to come back.

The Irish Cup semi-finals and final are scheduled to go ahead later this month, with the potential for some fans being allowed into the decider on July 31, but clubs and the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) have more talking to do before they can finalise preparations for next season.

Some clubs, arguing that supporters must be able to return to stadiums in significant numbers, feared a restart may have to wait until as late as October but if the Irish FA succeed in their efforts to accommodate thousands of supporters at Windsor Park for a Northern Ireland game in just two months' time then there is no reason why the domestic league cannot resume in late August or September.

The IFA are hoping 6,000 fans will be allowed to attend the Nations League game against Norway on Monday, September 7.

That may fall well short of Windsor's capacity of more than 18,000 but it would at least blow away fears of the worse case scenario of a behind closed doors fixture.

Everything will depend on whether the virus can continue to be contained, with the Irish Cup final hopefully representing a step in the right direction.

The Premiership season was curtailed on 31 games after much debate and it's now likely that clubs are going to hold different views on how the 2020-2021 campaign should unfold.

But as long as supporters are allowed to stream into grounds in September, fears of a long delay may not be realised.

Reds chairman Gerard Lawlor is hopeful next season can kick-off earlier than October, as had been feared by Coleraine chief Colin McKendry and his Ballymena United counterpart John Taggart

"We are dictated to by the authorities, though the Irish Cup will provide a taster of the way ahead," said Lawlor.

"I know clubs want 50% capacity attendances in grounds and October has been suggested, though my view is we should play football as soon as we can, when it is safe.

"From a Cliftonville perspective, our desire is to play football and we should return at the earliest opportunity, provided it is safe to do so."

It has been confirmed that the two Irish Cup semi-finals - Ballymena United v Coleraine and Glentoran v Cliftonville - at Windsor Park on July 27 will have no supporters in attendance, however the Irish FA will seek guidance from the NI Executive before any decision on allowing fans to attend the Cup Final later that week.

An IFA spokesperson said: "We are liaising closely with government and will work to ensure all health guidelines are adhered to when planning any games at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park."

The NIFL has written to clubs requesting their thoughts on how next season's calendar should look.

Any delayed start will pose a fixtures headache if a 38-game league season is still the desired programme.

While there may be different opinions on a proposed start date, the clubs are expected to be united in their desire to see the end of season play-offs - which give the seventh placed side a chance to qualify for the Europa League - return now that the Irish League has regained its fourth European slot.

"The 12 Premiership clubs will decide on the play-offs but I think they would be in favour of that," added Lawlor.

"The play-offs add something to the end of the season and they have been good to us. For the league to regain its fourth European place is a big positive."

On the transfer front, Glentoran are closing in on defender Josh Robinson, who is leaving Linfield this summer and had been linked with both Larne and his former club Crusaders.

The Glens are also teeing up potential moves for Chris Casement, Cameron Dummigan, Michael O'Connor and Ben Kennedy. Meanwhile, Portadown have signed talented forward Ruairi Croskery from college football in the United States.

The 23-year-old Castlewellan native has spent the past three years playing for the South Carolina-based Limestone University on a scholarship but, on his return home, Ports boss Matthew Tipton wasted no time snapping him up for the 2020/21 campaign.

Before his spell stateside, Croskery was on Manchester United's books as a teenager before spending time with Linfield and then Warrenpoint Town as part of Tipton's Championship winning squad in 2017.

"Ruairi has the ability to play in any forward position and offers us something completely different to what we have now in terms of play," said Tipton.

Belfast Telegraph