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Irish League must not rush return in case of second coronavirus wave: Stephen Baxter



Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter

©INPHO/Stephen Hamilton

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter has warned against a swift return to playing football, arguing that more lives will be put at risk while the virus remains undefeated.

Baxter feels the Irish League community, along with the rest of the country, must remain focused on saving lives.

Football in Northern Ireland remains suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic but the Irish FA and Northern Ireland Football League are still hopeful the league campaigns and three Irish Cup matches can be played in the coming months.

That will depend on how the pandemic develops, whether social distancing rules are in place and, crucially, there must be sufficient confidence among players, coaching staff, referees and supporters that stadiums and changing rooms will be safe environments.

Without a vaccine, it's debatable whether that scenario will arise but there remains hope the number of infections will reduce.

Uefa has accepted that in worse case scenarios, domestic league and cup competitions could be cancelled. Baxter insists football can wait while medical experts make the big calls.

"This is ultimately about saving lives," said the Crues boss. "We can get back to playing football and rebuilding the economy when the time is right. If we make a really bad decision, we will undo our good work in fighting the virus.

"We could be hit by a second wave and have a lot more deaths.

"That's a worse case scenario and why we need to be cautious. If we go back too early and someone picks up the virus, then we won't be playing football again as everyone will need to self-isolate."

A Linfield player tested positive for the virus last month and had he, the club and authorities not acted swiftly, there could have been a rapid spread through the Irish League.

"The most important aspect for me is to listen to the right scientific and medical advice. You have to be guided by the experts," added Baxter, whose side lie third in the Premiership with seven games remaining.

Baxter added: “There is no vaccine and if we don’t have that there is the danger of so many more deaths. I’m shocked at how it has gripped the world in such a short period of time so I’m therefore exercising caution around what we do.

“I think for the next two years we will have to be very careful about people picking up a virus and keeping them separate from the rest of us.”

If football is given the green light to return, the domestic season could be concluded in just over a month, but clubs will expect to be given adequate warning.

“In an eight-year period we have only ever been out of action for six weeks,” said the former Linfield and Crusaders striker.

“We are already more than five weeks out. It’s a lengthy period of time before the green light is given to return. When that happens the players will need four weeks minimum to get themselves ready to play a match.

“It won’t be a case of restrictions lifted, away you go.

“I’m looking at other countries and Germany have managed the situation better than others. They have a lower death rate and yet they will not have mass gatherings until at least August 31.

“I hear all the talk about playing behind closed doors over the next few weeks and I'm thinking, ‘Seriously?’”

Linfield have expressed their opposition to any proposal to distribute Uefa funds from European qualification to other clubs.

If the season cannot resume and NIFL award our three European places to the top three sides then the Crues and Coleraine would net the Europa League spots, though there remains a big question mark over whether Irish League clubs will play in Europe this year.

Baxter added: “I think the clock is ticking for all of us in football and you can see so many sporting events being cancelled.

“I’d love to get the season wrapped up but I’ve no idea how things will pan out.

“Do you write off next season to finish this one?

“If we played matches behind closed doors we wouldn’t be able to afford to pay the referees.

“The Premier League might have all the facilities and money to facilitate behind closed doors games but we don’t.

“The Irish League may have to be more pro-active about generating money and perhaps introduce an online streaming service in which everyone pays £5 to watch a game. You would pick up your fans and others who are sitting at home.”

Belfast Telegraph