Belfast Telegraph

'The Welsh FA can afford £25k': Jeffrey calls for funding to help European performance but IFA stick to summer football plan

David Jeffrey and Ballymena United are off to Europe
David Jeffrey and Ballymena United are off to Europe
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

While the problem of losing a Europa League place is a significant one for Europe's lowest-ranked domestic leagues, the solutions are varied.

The Irish League will take around a £195k hit next summer with one European place already lost for the 2020/21 season.

Only significantly improved performances in this year's upcoming qualifiers will earn the third Europa League spot back, and even then it requires help from elsewhere.

The Irish League's proposed solution is a much-publicised season shift to ensure that teams are at peak fitness going into the mid-summer qualifying campaigns.

By way of comparison, Linfield, Ballymena United and Crusaders' first European opponents this summer are all currently in the middle of their domestic seasons, with Welsh side Barry Town, who face Cliftonville, the exception.

Barry, however, have been given a helping hand, including additional funding, from the Football Association of Wales in order to boost their chances of European progression.

An annual pot of £25k is made available to the Welsh clubs that are participating in European competition, after an opposing route to progress was chosen when it was established that there was 'no appetite' for summer football amongst the Welsh clubs.

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It's there that the approaches of the IFA and the FAW differ.

The FAW's plans were put in place with Wales facing four consecutive seasons at 50th or worse in the European coefficient ranking. A rise to 48th has helped push Northern Ireland down to 52nd (out of 55) and has successfully staved off the loss of a Europa League place.

"We realised there is a threat to us of dropping down the coefficient list, into the bottom four teams and losing a Europa League place," said Andrew Howard, Head of Competitions at the FAW.

"We needed to ensure that never happens because the situation that the Irish League is in is not very nice at all.

"We have a European play-off system as well and, while we don't know what the NI Football League are going to do, we felt that we would have to lose our play-offs, which are very popular with our broadcaster. That would have a huge detrimental  impact on the league.

"Our clubs used to play friendlies against each other but it wasn't working. The teams weren't fit or ready for the qualifiers. The FAW council put forward a pot of £25,000 per year to help organise friendlies and prepare the teams.

"This year Ballymena have played against Cardiff Met and Barry Town United with the FAW investment used to pay contributions to that trip. It's good for our clubs and hopefully it will help yours as well.

"The four clubs submit their plans to us and apply for some of the fund and it's then distributed depending on their needs.

"TNS this year are preparing for the Champions League by going to Scotland to play Rangers and for a training camp. They're also going to Portugal for a warm weather camp.

"The other three teams are all travelling to Ireland, which is good. We think that prepares them for the qualifiers with the plane journey, staying in a hotel and then playing a match.

"More than that we assist the clubs in other ways, such as helping them organise the matches and working with our sports science guys. Our technical team provides data on their opposition once the draw is done and we can access match footage through software that the FAW has.

"So it's not just the capital investment, it's the experience and knowledge that we try to contribute as well."

Both Linfield and Larne are this summer jetting off for warm weather training camps while Cliftonville were in Wales on Saturday in order to take on Connah's Quar Nomads ahead of their own Europa League campaign.

However, United are about to embark on only their third European campaign since 1989 and have not yet received the significant European prize-money for this summer, which will total at least £195k.

So United boss David Jeffrey, who has seen his side benefit from the two friendly victories over their Welsh visitors ahead of their Europa League first leg tie on Thursday, would like to see the Irish FA provide similar 'short-term' assistance.

"There has been an awful lot of talk about the clubs being able to progress and do better for the good of the league as well as the clubs themselves," he said, having brought his side in for pre-season training on June 4, earlier than he has ever done in his 24 year managerial career.

"There has been a lot of talk from the great and the good with regards to the benefits of summer football and how that would make us more competitive. We do appreciate that but what we would appreciate most is some practical help as a more short-term solution.

"If we didn't have (Welsh teams visiting the Showgrounds), we would have been scraping around to see what we could arrange. What I would like to see is practical help as far as is possible. The Welsh FA can afford £25k, then I wonder why that isn't reciprocated."

The FAW governs the Welsh national team and the domestic league, but there are, of course, more complications this side of the Irish Sea. While the clubs represent the Irish FA when playing in European competition, the IFA helps to fund NIFL to look after the top three domestic divisions.

The Irish FA have stressed that they are committed to helping clubs in European competition but are sticking to their guns on what they view as a long-term solution.

"The Irish FA wants to support our NIFL Premiership clubs to achieve more in European competition but also to make life easier for clubs by supporting their everyday administration," said an Irish FA statement.

"We will work with the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) to propose a tweaking of the season so that clubs are playing in May and June. This will mean that clubs that have qualified for Europe are in peak form and fitness ahead of their competitive matches."

United host the Faroe Islands' NSI Runavik in the Europea League preliminary round first leg at the Showgrounds on Thursday. Cliftonville, meanwhile, travel to Barry Town for the first leg of their tie.

Crusaders enter the competition a round later while Linfield's Champions League tie against Rosenborg will be played on July 10 and 16.

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