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Patrick Nelson: There has not been a lack of leadership at the top of Northern Irish football

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Making plans: IFA chief Patrick Nelson

Making plans: IFA chief Patrick Nelson

Making plans: IFA chief Patrick Nelson

Football in Northern Ireland was halted by the Irish FA on March 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In every week since, the Belfast Telegraph has requested an interview with IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson.

Today, he takes part in his first newspaper interview since lockdown. Steven Beacom asked him the pressing questions.

Q. The lockdown has been going on for three months. You have disappeared in that time and haven't been speaking to the press despite repeated requests. Northern Ireland football has needed leadership at this time and it seems you have offered very little.

A. I think that is completely incorrect Steven. We have been working with our stakeholders tirelessly on matters that affect football in Northern Ireland. We have all had to deal with an issue that none of us have had to deal with in our lifetimes before and I have put my time into focusing on what makes the most difference for the stakeholders in Northern Ireland football. We have been liaising with Uefa. Most of our funding comes from Uefa, so trying to make sure we are in line with their thinking has been key. There has been significant liaising with the government. When the original £25,000 grant scheme came out, football was nowhere near it. Myself and people from other codes worked hard to get that money in for our sport. We have spent a lot of time working on things that have made a difference to our clubs. I would not suggest there has been a lack of leadership.

Q. Do you support the NIFL (Northern Ireland Football League) Steering Group proposal to play two more games in the Irish Premiership or do you feel the season should finish now and be decided by a mathematical model which was the alternative they provided?

A. What we have done is create the opportunity for NIFL to finish the season. That has been through endless negotiations with government and Uefa. As time has moved on it has become clear there is a window. That window ends on August 3 because that is the last date we can provide our nominations to Uefa. There is a window for NIFL to get to a 33-game scenario and there is a window for us to play the Irish Cup and to be able to write to Uefa with our nominations for Europe. We think it would be a good thing for the game to finish on the field, not a spreadsheet. Having said that, it is NIFL's decision. We are having solid conversations with our key government representatives at the Department of Communities to ensure they know about our plans. The window goes on August 3 and my estimation, based on keeping my ear to the ground, is that realistically the earliest we could get a game played is July 20. If you add five days to that and move to July 25, it is going to be possible to have two rounds of NIFL fixtures followed by the semi-finals and final of the Irish Cup.

Q. So, you support an idea that many clubs feel lacks the guidelines agreed for a return to football i.e. sporting integrity, the health and wellbeing of players and financial sustainability?

A. I would say there is a pretty high degree of sporting integrity if they get to 33 games as everyone would have played each other three times. It is certainly a better position than having played each other less than three times which is where they are now. In terms of health and wellbeing, we put a lot of work in in our "Return to Play" protocol. We have learnt from rugby, GAA and other countries and have worked with Sport NI on this and we put together a protocol we think is appropriate for the semi-professional game. Between ourselves and NIFL, we will fund a round of (Covid-19) testing before we get back into playing football.

Q. If football returns, will there only be one round of Covid-19 testing?

A. We will fund a round of testing before we get back to football. If clubs want to fund any further testing beyond that, it is an opportunity for them. On the UK Sport guidelines and other sporting guidelines, there is no absolute necessity for testing. We think adding a round of testing will be good for players, stakeholders, physios, doctors etc and is the right thing to do.

NOTE: (The IFA are talking to a number of companies about testing methods).

Q. IFA president David Martin said the IFA would speak to players relating to their concerns. When will that happen?

A. That's a good idea but has to happen with NIFL because the clubs are members of NIFL. It has to be organised by NIFL and it would probably make sense for us to have that conversation jointly.

Q. Will the Irish Cup (at the semi-final stage) go ahead if the league doesn't?

A. Yes, it is still our intention to play the Irish Cup to a finish. Again, it would depend on the government. We're not going to go outside government guidelines. The Challenge Cup Committee has met and they have reiterated they want the Irish Cup played to a finish this season.

Q. Can Uefa money that clubs gain from qualifying for Europe be shared?

A. There's a really specific regulation on that. I haven't checked the Europa League one but within the Champions League regulations it's 59.03 and Uefa make it very clear a participating club may not share any of the money with a third party except with the prior express approval of Uefa, so it's a very irregular thing. We've spoken to Uefa and they say the only country in their history who have done this is Gibraltar, who are very new to the whole football family, so it would have to be something where there was a unanimous decision from our clubs for them to even consider it.

Belfast Telegraph