Irish FA and NIFL chiefs have been given fresh hope in the fight to get fans back into stadiums following news that 600 supporters will attend Ulster Rugby's match at the Kingspan Stadium tomorrow, however both football authorities are proceeding with extreme caution.
NIFL remain confident supporters will not be locked out of matches when the Danske Bank Premiership season begins on October 17, while the Irish FA are still hopeful that some Northern Ireland fans will be able to attend the Nations League clash with Austria at Windsor Park on Sunday, October 11.
The IFA confirmed yesterday that they would welcome fans to the Austria game, subject to NI Executive and Uefa approval.
The Association, however, cannot make any predictions or promises because they are aware the Covid-19 picture is a fluid one and Uefa's insistence that all matches should be played behind closed doors remains in place "until further notice".
But there is fresh hope on the horizon after Ulster Rugby revealed that 850 people in total would attend their Pro14 opener against Benetton tomorrow night.
The news is of particular interest to the Irish FA as Ulster's home ground can facilitate a capacity of 18,211 - very similar to Windsor's 18,500. The Irish FA can point to the fact they successfully organised the safe attendance of 500 fans at the Irish Cup final in July, while Belfast sides Glentoran and Crusaders have been able to welcome between 600 and 750 fans at The Oval and Seaview for pre-season friendlies by working in partnership with Belfast City Council on safety measures.
Northern Ireland's 5-2 defeat to Norway last month - Ian Baraclough's first home match in charge of the side - was played without fans but there is still hope some supporters will be able to attend the home Nations League clash with Austria, three days after the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo.
The UK-wide picture is bleak after the government hit the pause button on a partial return of fans to stadiums.
But in Northern Ireland, Stormont is currently offering no guidance on possible attendances, leaving it to clubs to establish good working relationships with Councils.
A NIFL spokesperson said: “NIFL continue to work with the clubs and provide support as they work with their local authorities to maximise their crowds to a safe capacity.
“We will do all we can to help clubs through this difficult time.”
Belfast City Council can work with the Irish FA for international matches but Uefa would need to lift their spectator ban ahead of the Austria game.
In August, Uefa reinforced their view, taken in July, that matches under their banner would continue to be played behind closed doors until further notice. Uefa say they will “monitor the evolution of the situation and advise on any full or partial lifting of restrictions at the appropriate time”.
It’s possible the governing body will provide an update later this week.
Just shy of 16,000 fans were allowed to attend the Uefa Super Cup final in Budapest last month to test their Return to Play Protocol.
An Irish FA source said: “Nothing has changed as we await an update from Uefa.”
If the Ulster Rugby fans trial is a success, it will generate further hope that more fans will be allowed into sporting venues but the rising number of coronavirus cases remains a concern for all sporting bodies.
Northern Ireland recorded another high of new positive cases yesterday as a further 424 cases were announced.
Larne manager Tiernan Lynch, meanwhile, fears Covid-19 outbreaks could badly disrupt the Danske Bank Premiership season.
The 2020-2021 campaign has already been pushed back due to the pandemic, with a provisional starting date of October 17 for the Premiership season.
On top of the regular Saturday matches, nine rounds of fixtures are pencilled in for Tuesdays until the end of April when the post-split fixtures are finalised.
The harsh winter weather can lead to postponements and there is always the possibility that players could contract the virus.
Larne boss Lynch argued: “What could affect the season is these random cases we could get.
“There could be positive tests and fixtures called off.
“I hope I’m wrong but if anything is going to curtail the league it is going to be those outbreaks. Most of the teams aren’t full-time and they aren’t living in some sort of protective bubble.
“But I don’t believe games should be forfeited. Postponing games I can understand because these unfortunate circumstances are beyond anyone’s control.
“It could become a logistical nightmare if games are postponed.”
Former Linfield defender Chris Casement has joined Stowmarket Town, a Suffolk-based team who play in the Eastern Counties League Premier Division.
The 32-year-old said: “I’ll be doing everything I can to help the team make it a successful season this year.”