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Raymond Crangle: Coronavirus must be gone before referees return to Irish League action



Health alert: Raymond Crangle

Health alert: Raymond Crangle

Inpho/Stephen Hamilton

Health alert: Raymond Crangle

Experienced referee Raymond Crangle has warned that officials will not return to duty unless the football environment in Northern Ireland is safe.

The Irish FA have suspended all matches until April 4 and there are understandable fears that date may be pushed back as the coronavirus crisis deepens.

There's a strong desire to conclude the season, even if it involves playing in June or July, but it would be wrong to resume playing if there are concerns surrounding the health and wellbeing of fans, players and the officials.

Northern Ireland's referees are self-employed and former Fifa official Crangle feels that if one member of the team was reluctant to return to work then in a show of solidarity with their colleague, the rest of the officials would refuse to put their health at risk.

And even if matches are played behind closed doors, players and officials could be exposed to the virus.

"We are in the same boat as the players," said respected ref Crangle.

"We want to referee and players want to play but safety has to come first.

"Referees can decide not to service the games if we don't feel it's right for our members."

Crangle added: “Given that we are self-employed, we will not be told to referee games. Before NIFL postponed the matches, refs were told if they wanted to pull out of their game that weekend they would have the full support of the Northern Ireland Referees’ Association, of which I am vice-chair.

“We will support our members. We have to protect ourselves and our loved ones and that means distancing ourselves from football at the moment.

“I have an 86-year-old grandmother and I would have to think long and hard before going out to referee a game when the virus is still out there.

“You have to look at the bigger picture and the game must be safe for everyone. In my opinion, this virus needs to be gone.

“There’s two things you need for a football game – a ball and a referee. Refs feel like the child looking into the sweetie shop window while everyone else is inside.

“If one of our officials doesn’t feel comfortable returning to work, they don’t have to do it and I believe the referees would stick together. There needs to be a bond within the group and we will stay united. We start and finish as a team. Break up that team and it won’t be strong.”

Clubs may consider playing matches behind closed doors but Crangle doesn’t believe it’s a viable option.

“Playing games behind closed doors might get the job done but you’d still worry about everyone’s health,” he added.

“This is an entertainment industry and if we do that, who are we entertaining? And there’s no finance, with no one paying in.

“No one is immune from this virus. You will have packed changing rooms and then there’s four plus a referee’s observer in our smaller room.

“You can eliminate handshakes but someone in the club still has to clean the rooms and potentially be exposed to the virus if one of us is leaving it on a surface.

“If you look at the demographic of the Irish League fan base, they would be high risk. It’s not teenagers who go to games, it’s more older people.”

The Northern Ireland Football League have set up an internal steering group to “devise solutions” on how best to resume and conclude the current season.

With the Irish Cup and league campaigns to be finished and the three European places finalised, it’s clear that if football does return in the summer it could mean next season’s campaign is shortened.

Crangle also manages a bar in Belfast and with the bars also closing, his life has changed dramatically.

“There’s no refereeing and bar work now,” added the 46-year-old.

“We are effectively self-employed and no matches means no earnings.

“With the pub closing, it’s a double whammy for me. No one referees for a wage, it’s a sideline or hobby though it can be quite lucrative if you attain high standards and go on the international list.

“Our match fee is well documented and people frown about that but I believe we are worth it.

“A Premier League referee gets £180 a match, an assistant referee and a fourth official would receive £95 for a game. It’s not a wage but it can be a lucrative sideline in what is a performance-related industry.

“The onus is still on us to train and be fit for the resumption of football but we are only paid when we do the job.

“Our refs aren’t on full-time contracts even though we have to pass the same fitness tests as the officials at the top of our game.”

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