Belfast Telegraph

Irish League questions remain over 'Champions Cup' match despite promise of 'significant prize money'

Big plans: League of Ireland director Fran Gavin at the Aviva launch yesterday
Big plans: League of Ireland director Fran Gavin at the Aviva launch yesterday

By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland Football League chiefs and clubs are concerned about an even more congested fixture schedule next season should a 'champions match' between the League of Ireland champions and the Irish Premiership winners be given the green light for November.

League of Ireland director Fran Gavin announced details of the new match at the FAI season launch in Dublin yesterday, adding: "Our colleagues up in the north are very happy with the dates. It is significant prize money which we will announce in the next few weeks."

That was news to both the Irish FA and NIFL, who admitted there had been discussions regarding the proposal but nothing was confirmed.

Linfield chairman Roy McGivern stated he was keen to hear more about the plans and one of the major obstacles facing Danske Bank Premiership clubs is their already hectic fixture calendar - a programme often disrupted by hostile weather.

Ballymena United, who are six points behind the Blues in the title race while boasting a game in hand, have had significant problems with their pitch this season while David Healy's side expect heavy match commitments as they compete on several fronts.

As well as Premiership clashes, County Antrim Shield and League Cup fixtures, the Gibson Cup holders have been playing in the IRN-BRU Scottish Challenge Cup. And it was concerns over fixture scheduling which contributed to the downfall of the All-Ireland Setanta Cup, a tournament which ended in 2014.

An NIFL source said: "We weren't expecting this announcement, though the proposition is intriguing. Our biggest question mark over the whole thing is where, when and how?

"We have a domestic fixture schedule and then the Scottish Challenge Cup. There's a lot going on around that time and our clubs need to be happy with any proposal. We will support them as best we can."

Gavin, FAI Director of Competitions, suggested the new 'champions match' was happening when he stated: "That intrigue (for the league season) will be significantly enhanced by the introduction of a new cross-border competition which will see the champions of the SSE Airtricity League and the champions of the Northern Irish Premiership face each other.

"We've seen some fantastic spectacles and occasions from cross-border competitions like the Setanta Sports Cup in the past and we're delighted to work with the IFA in reintroducing it to the domestic football calendar."

Champions Dundalk begin their title defence against Sligo Rovers at Oriel Park on Friday and should they retain the prize they could be on course for a reunion with Linfield. In March 2011 the Blues made their first competitive visit to Oriel Park since the ill-fated 1979 European Cup tie that was overshadowed by serious crowd disturbances.

There was a heavy security presence around the ground and the kick-off was put back 15 minutes due to traffic congestion as 2,250 fans made their way to the ground.

The visitors were given a hostile reception by the home support who unveiled a 'welcome to hell' banner as the teams emerged.

A wire fence separated 400 Linfield fans from the main stand housing home supporters.

"We need to see the details of what is being proposed because it will involve a range of issues," said Linfield chairman McGivern.

"We are open to discussions and at this stage we cannot commit to anything until we see the details.

"It appears talks are ongoing between the two associations and, if an agreement is reached, the club that wins this season's Premiership will need to agree to it. If a proposal does come our way we will examine it."

The Irish FA stated: "While nothing has been confirmed at this stage, discussions about a potential new cross-border game between the NIFL Premiership champions and winners of the League of Ireland have been going on for the past few months.

"The Irish FA welcomes exploring the format which could bring substantial revenues for the clubs involved both in terms of prize money and gate receipts. The Irish FA will continue to work to ensure therefore that any new competition works for the good of clubs and the league in Northern Ireland."

NIFL added: "The NI Football League note today's announcement at the SSE Airtricity League Launch regarding the potential formation of a new competition between the winners of the Danske Bank Premiership and SSE Airtricity League.

"We were aware that initial discussions had taken place between the Irish FA and FAI but did not expect any formal announcements at this stage.

"We look forward to consultation and receiving further detail, which we will consider with our member clubs."

Belfast Telegraph

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