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Gareth McAuley

I can't see Irish League season being played to a finish

Gareth McAuley


Linfield chairman Roy McGivern

Linfield chairman Roy McGivern

Linfield chairman Roy McGivern

As a realist, I can't see the 2019-20 Danske Bank Premiership season being played to a finish.

Unless there is a dramatic change in government restrictions on social distancing and mass crowds, Irish League clubs will simply not be in a position to play the remaining seven sets of games.

I don't mind repeating the obvious - player safety and the health of the supporters watching must take priority over football at this time.

And it's just not financially feasible for Irish League clubs to play behind closed doors. They desperately need the money through the gate to operate and maintain their business.

Players are currently on furlough, but if games are given the go-ahead, they'll immediately come off the government scheme and it will be down to the clubs to meet their weekly wage bill. Without fans coming through the turnstiles, handing over a few quid for a programme and using the social club, there is no money to pay players.

The Northern Ireland Football League have to tell UEFA by May 25 if they intend to play out their season, the manner in which this is going to take place and then have it completed by July 21 in order to facilitate European requirements in terms of proposing teams for competition.

Therefore, with the pandemic and its ramifications set to linger with us for months, it will take a radical plan in the next few weeks to save this season and allow the seven sets of fixtures remaining to be played.

The Irish FA will still need to put forward the teams representing the Irish League in Europe - there are just three slots - and so, without the winners of the Irish Cup, they will go with the current League placings, Linfield, Coleraine and Crusaders.

This will be desperately unfortunate for Cliftonville, who will miss out on goal difference, while Glentoran and Larne are just a couple of points behind.

But then comes the thorny issue of European money.

In recent weeks, highly-respected former IFA President and ex-FIFA Vice-President Jim Boyce, Ballymena manager David Jeffrey and Glens boss Mick McDermott have all expressed their desire to see the money shared throughout the League.

Linfield argue they deserve all their money for investing in a squad to finish top of the pile and their chairman Roy McGivern states people and clubs are being "opportunistic" by saying the money should be distributed amongst all the clubs.

I know Roy, having met him when he was following Northern Ireland, and he is a top guy, but I disagree strongly with him. The Blues are missing out on a huge amount of good and positive publicity and instead are coming across as greedy and selfish.

So much for the nation's coronavirus mantra that 'We're all in this together'.

Remember, if the season is called off prematurely, there are seven games to go and the Blues lead Coleraine by four points. Linfield may be awarded the Champions League place, but they haven't won the League and as a player who was brought up on the cut and thrust of competition, I would be embarrassed if it's written on the Windsor Park boardroom wall that Linfield won the League this season.

They have finished top by default and it would be a hollow victory. It would be similar to when Celtic won those Scottish Premiership titles without Rangers in the League.

I said earlier this year I expected Linfield to win the League, even when they weren't top, but the season is not going to be completed.

Linfield, as the biggest club in Northern Ireland, are doing well financially - they basically play rent-free at Windsor Park, with the IFA, owners of the stadium, paying for a lot of the general running costs and giving out £200,000 each year to Linfield for the ground rent. So while it is tough going for the football fraternity in Northern Ireland, the Blues will be doing better than most in the Danske Bank Premiership.

This is now a battle of survival to save the League and Linfield can play a vital role - and I would be saying the same about Coleraine and Crusaders.

Clubs may argue that the likes of Warrenpoint, Carrick and Dungannon were never seriously in the running for European spots anyway, so they wouldn't be expecting a Euro cash windfall.

That may be true, under normal circumstances. However, these are not normal circumstances, with the pandemic having turned the world upside down and clubs at the lower end of the table struggling to stay operational.

For the good and healthy state of the League, whenever it returns, surely it is better to have a strong division rather than one that is ridiculously top-heavy.

It would hardly be good for the game if Linfield, Coleraine and Crusaders end up battering teams 10-0 because clubs can't afford to pay for players and end up using kids who only require a few quid a week.

As a competitor, I know it would give me greater satisfaction if I won the League after a tough, hard season rather than just a stroll most match days.

There is a moral obligation on the top sides and also the integrity of the League is at stake here.

Usually, a great deal of the UEFA money is used for travel and costs associated with playing on the continent, but I can't see any European games taking place in the foreseeable future, especially if there is a two-week quarantine on people coming and going from the country, so once again it will only benefit the bank accounts of those clubs who are in a fortunate position when the season is cut short.

Sharing is caring, so to help the League and keep it competitive, clubs must see the bigger picture.

Then, in years to come, when this pandemic is in the books of history, the clubs can look back with pride at how they played a part in keeping the Premiership going.

Reasons to reject latest all-Ireland proposals are simple

Football is supposed to be a simple game.

Sure, VAR has maybe complicated matters in recent years, but by and large football is easy to understand.

And then in the last week come the new proposals, I think at the fourth time of asking, for the new All-Ireland League.

Why someone would try and push a new venture during a pandemic is beyond me. Talk about bad timing.

I’m all for a distraction during this coronavirus crisis, but when clubs are just trying to stay in existence, is it sensible to put forward plans for a new competition which has so many what ifs?

After going through the document, a couple of things jumped out at me.

You play in your usual League for a section of the season and then split. Six teams from Northern Ireland and eight from the Republic. Why six for Northern Ireland? Where is the equality?

It would be ‘summer football’ and that has been a bone of contention in Northern Ireland for many a year and we still haven’t come up with a solution. So a stumbling block there.

The winner will be called ‘King of the Island’ — sounds like something you are classified as after winning numerous races at the TT.

Whether we like it or not, Northern Ireland is now out of the EU. How will that affect things, especially in terms of countries’ recovery plans from Covid-19? Sponsorship and broadcasting finances may be hit severely.

Then the major issue. Most of the players in the Danske Bank Premiership are semi-professional. The All-Ireland League, in my eyes, can’t go ahead without the players being full-time. Well, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

To me, these plans are the Setanta Cup on Viagra.

Very confusing, very complicated and I don’t think they will change the mind of the Irish Football Association, who need to come out in favour of it to go ahead.

Oh for the simple game.

Belfast Telegraph