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'No decision made' at NIFL Premiership committee meeting as Irish League season remains in limbo

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The 19/20 Danske Bank Premiership season has not yet been brought to a close.

The 19/20 Danske Bank Premiership season has not yet been brought to a close.

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The 19/20 Danske Bank Premiership season has not yet been brought to a close.

Football chiefs and clubs have still not sounded the final whistle on the league season even though they have been backed into a corner by the NI Executive's plan to fight coronavirus.

Under Stormont’s blueprint, contact sports can only resume in the fifth and final stage of easing Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and with the game unable to resume in the next few months, football chiefs should be in shut down mode.

But in tonight’s meeting involving the Premiership clubs, there were discussions about the possible options moving forward, however no decisions were taken.

One source said: “The stone has been kicked down the road. There was a lot of talk but no decision made.”

There are further meetings planned on Thursday involving the Championship, Premier Intermediate and women’s leagues and NIFL are expected to issue a statement on Friday morning.

A NIFL spokesperson said: “The meeting was an opportunity for us and the Irish FA to provide information to the clubs. It was not about a vote, more about giving the leagues clarity regarding what the next steps could be.”

The big question remains how the league season can continue following the Government’s restrictions.

The fifth and final stage will see the resumption of close physical contact sports which spectators would be able to attend on a limited basis with social distancing measures remaining in place.

Although First Minister Arlene Foster said she hoped to reach the final stage by December, it could be much sooner and clubs are hopeful of a return to action in September.

Another Premiership source said: “Sinn Fein and the DUP’s position hasn’t changed. It’s a Government decision which will determine when football will return, it’s not down to the Irish FA, NIFL or the clubs.”

Larne owner Kenny Bruce has called for the season to be ended and while a few clubs are hopeful of playing the remaining fixtures, several in the top flight believe the campaign should be finished.

The health risk is still considered to be too great, not simply to the players, staff and officials but to their families as well.

Northern Ireland football is suspended until May 31 and Uefa gave football authorities a May 25 deadline to submit plans for concluding the season.

If the season is finished, NIFL will need to address the difficult issues of promotion and relegation, the league title and European qualification along with whether Uefa funding should be shared among clubs.

Linfield topped the Premiership table by four points from Coleraine when fixtures were suspended in March with seven games remaining, with the Blues, Bannsiders and Crusaders occupying the European places.

Uefa has reiterated it does not intend to scrap the qualifying rounds for Champions and Europa Leagues next season, but nothing can be planned with any certainty because everything depends on how the pandemic develops.

Irish FA chief-executive Patrick Nelson and Sean Murphy, chief operating officer at the association, joined the meeting via Zoom to respond to clubs’ queries.

Clubs, fearful of their long-term financial futures during the Covid-19 outbreak, are hoping the association can help steer them through this storm.

An Irish FA statement read: “We welcomed the opportunity to discuss how the Irish FA have responded since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and how we have strived to support and protect football in Northern Ireland at all levels.

“This included sharing insight with the Northern Ireland Executive around ensuring football is included in the different financial support schemes available. 

“We agreed the health and wellbeing of participants is the most important aspect of any plans to return to training and competitive fixtures. They must be signed off by our own medical advisers and those from the government.”

Former Crusaders and Ballymena United manager Roy Walker said: “Football will return when it’s safe to do so. There may be a broader argument as to what constitutes safe.

“I always say when you ask for patience expect to find yourself at the back of the queue. In society we usually get what we want when we want it and now we can’t it’s caused people to reset.

“Football is important to folk but in this challenging time it has to take its place.

“It doesn’t make sense to tell people to keep their distance and then engage in a contact sport. Logic dictates you can’t do both.”

Belfast Telegraph