Irish League to lose £195k Europa League place regardless of performance in summer qualifiers
The Irish League is set to send only three teams to European competition next summer, plunging the play-off structure into doubt
The Premiership champions will enter into a mini-tournament preliminary round in the Champions League
There may be a silver lining to original cash blow
Northern Ireland is set to lose one Europa League place for the 2020/21 season regardless of performances in this summer's European qualifiers.
The league currently receives three Europa League berths on top of the Champions League spot for the Danske Bank Premiership winners and it had been thought that a positive performance in the upcoming qualifying campaigns could save the status quo.
However, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal that the NI Football League is already putting plans in place to deal with the loss of one Europa League spot as it awaits what is thought to be inevitable confirmation from UEFA.
The hammer-blow throws the current structure of the Danske Bank Premiership season into chaos as NIFL must decide how to adjust its play-off system.
While this summer Irish Cup winners Crusaders, league runners-up Ballymena United and play-off winners Cliftonville are all gearing up for the qualifiers, next season only the Irish Cup winners and the league runners-up are set to gain a Europa League place, with the spot currently given to the play-off winners due to be lost.
The play-off system forms an integral part of the current Premiership season, giving the bottom six teams something to play for post-split and forming an exciting end to the campaign.
“Having closely monitored the impact of the UEFA co-efficient in recent months, we are aware of the potential reduction in European places available to our clubs from season 2020/2021 onwards," read a NIFL statement.
“We still await formal confirmation from UEFA on this matter, and once clarified we be able to advise the impact on the format of our competitions.”
Nations are given European places based on their UEFA coefficient and Northern Ireland have been slipping down the rankings in recent years.
The nation was ranked 44th from 55 nations ahead of the 16/17 season but, it can be revealed, is set to be 52nd for the 20/21 season.
Unless there is a change in the UEFA workings for European competition, that means the Irish League WILL lose one of its Europa League places for next summer's qualifiers.
Adding insult to injury, the Danske Bank Premiership champions will also lose their automatic right to play in the Champions League first qualifying round, instead facing a preliminary round against the champions of Kosovo, Andorra and San Marino, all playing for just one spot in the first qualifying round.
The two teams that reach the Europa League qualifiers must enter at the preliminary round, with the automatic first qualifying round berth for the Irish Cup winners also demoted.
Ballymena United manager David Jeffrey had previously said that the loss of a European place - and the €220k (£195k) prize money that goes with it - would be a 'mini-disaster' for the league.
"You look at the strides clubs have been able to make and a lot of it is down to the European money," he added on Tuesday night, as his Ballymena side begun pre-season training to prepare for their Europa League tie. "To have part of that taken away is a big disappointment.
"This is why I've always wanted all Irish League teams to do well in Europe. Rivalries go out the window because we're all playing our part in the coefficient.
"It's why we're starting back to pre-season earlier than I have ever done before because we'll be giving it our best shot."
Fears over losing the place and its monetary reward have been central to the recent moves to introduce summer football although there could be a financial silver lining to the bomb-shell news.
That's because, should the Premiership champions win their preliminary round, they will scoop both €230k for playing in the mini-tournament and a further €280k for featuring in the first qualifying round.
The same goes for the two Europa League sides, who could pocket a total of €460k each for successfully negotiating their preliminary round ties.
The Irish League will be hoping that some positive performances this summer will regain the lost Europa League place for of the 21/22 campaign, with the Faroe Islands, currently in 50th place, most likely to be caught.
That's because the rankings for a given season are based on a country's coefficient over five seasons up to and including two campaigns previous. For example, Northern Ireland's coefficient ranking for the upcoming 19/20 campaign is based on teams' European performance from the 13/14 season to the 17/18 season. Positive performances this summer, therefore, could have positive impacts for the 21/22 season.
It is as yet unclear how the Europa League places will be distributed between UEFA's member nations from the 2021/22 season onwards as the current system is set for review.