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Larne owner Bruce calls for break in season but Irish League clubs keen to battle on amidst lockdown

Larne owner warns of further spread as elite sport continues


Call it: Kenny Bruce believes games should come to a halt with the league reverting to 22 games

Call it: Kenny Bruce believes games should come to a halt with the league reverting to 22 games

Call it: Kenny Bruce believes games should come to a halt with the league reverting to 22 games

Larne owner Kenny Bruce has led calls for the Irish League to hit the pause button while the Covid-19 crisis deepens, but the majority of clubs say the show must go on.

Shocking numbers of positive cases are raising alarm and Bruce has questioned the wisdom of matches continuing.

Elite sport is allowed to continue without supporters but there is growing concern within the league over the deteriorating health picture, and the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) asked clubs for their feelings on the issue yesterday.

The majority of clubs are keen to play on while they have the backing of the NI Executive.

Elite sport was banned for a week at the end of last year and two full sets of matches - on December 26 and 29 - were called off as a result of lockdown measures in place at the time.

Covid-19 outbreaks continue to cause postponements, with the fixtures between Ballymena United and Coleraine and Larne and Carrick Rangers, which were due to take place this Saturday, called off in line with NIFL's Covid-19 policy.

Next week's game between Glenavon and Ballymena has also fallen victim of protocols.

The Public Health Authority said two cases had been found "within individuals" on the field in the game involving Larne and Ballymena last Saturday.

While matches will continue for now, hopes of completing a 38-game Premiership season are fading.

Twice-weekly coronavirus testing is to be introduced at all 72 EFL clubs from Monday and without regular Covid-19 testing for Irish League clubs, player welfare will remain a worry.

As part of NIFL's contingency plan, agreed by the clubs, champions can be declared after 22 matches and the immediate goal of clubs is to reach that tally.

But the pandemic could spark another government shutdown and Larne owner Bruce says it's a call which should be made now.

"(The league) must be called off," he said on Twitter. "One in 50 now have Covid. In August it was one in 900 so every game could have one positive case. This will spread so stop the games now.

"Make the season 22 games which reduces pressure on fixtures, testing for each club each week funded by the IFA and financial support from government to play behind closed doors gives us all the comfort required to adhere to the current restrictions safely."

Crusaders goalkeeper Sean O'Neill agreed that the season should be halted in light of the recent upsurge in positive tests.

"Surely we in the Irish League need to look at this recent spike in cases and make a decision on what we do next," O'Neill argued on Twitter. "Are the players safe? In my opinion we need to close up shop until February 6, restart training for two weeks and play just 22 games (Saturdays only)."

The north Belfast side, however, are keen to see matches continue. Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter said: "While the Covid situation is fluid, we can only play the game in front of us.

"If we have a situation where Covid overwhelms the Irish League and we have to shut down for any length of time then the authorities can cut the league from 38 games. The Euros are in June and there's a timeframe in which we can't afford to lose any more games.

"We are on track today, but if we lose more matches the authorities will act. All we can do is prepare for games and not look too far up the track. You don't know what's around the corner so I'm focusing on us staying fit and playing the next game.

"What matters is keeping everyone safe at this club."

Dungannon Swifts chairman Keith Boyd said: "We've had postponements, but every club knows what they are doing. I think clubs can sustain a few individuals getting it and we can play on."

Belfast Telegraph