Football/Soccer

Belated start of Stephen Kenny's Ireland reign could come in Dublin if Bulgaria tie switched

Stephen Kenny's first game in charge of the Republic of Ireland is scheduled to take place against Bulgaria on September 3. Picture by PA
Neil Loughran

THE belated start of Stephen Kenny's reign as Republic of Ireland manager could yet take place at the Aviva Stadium, with their opening Uefa Nations League game against Bulgaria potentially being switched to Dublin.

That Group Four showdown is scheduled to take place in Sofia on September 3 and was set to herald the start of Kenny's tenure, five months after finally taking over the role from Mick McCarthy and two years since the succession plan was originally unveiled.

However, as a result of travel restrictions arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, discussions have taken place about possibly hosting that game at a neutral venue or maybe even switching it to Dublin.

If that happened, the aim would be to host the November 18 return fixture in Bulgaria.

“We are still looking for dispensation on players coming back so if they are in non-green areas they don't have to quarantine for two weeks and so we are in the middle of that with the medical expert group,” said interim Football Association of Ireland chief executive Gary Owens yesterday.

“We are reasonably confident we can get that through for all the players we need it to. That didn't apply to the League of Ireland clubs because they were trying to bring in some players and if they were coming from non-green areas they had to quarantine. We insisted on that.

“Bulgaria is definitely a challenge. Finland doesn't look like it is a challenge so we may end up playing Bulgaria in a neutral country – we may even end up playing them here. At the moment what you're trying to do is just be practical about everything. Every country is trying to accommodate each other so if there's a simple way of doing it, we'll do it.

“There's been a lot of work going on in Uefa about what's happening in countries and territories. I'm interested to see what the outcome will be.”

The FAI had hoped Kenny's first home game in charge could be played in front of a decent-sized crowd of up to 18,000.

However, Tuesday night's announcement from Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the size of crowds gathering will remain at 200 for outdoors events dealt a significant blow to those ambitions if the Bulgaria game does end up taking place in Dublin.

“The news in relation to 200 fans, we thought that might go to 500, isn't a positive step,” added Owens.

“We were hoping to get the 18,000 in [the Aviva] in September, we were mildly confident that might happen. Now that looks like a big challenge.”

Another challenge that has cropped up on the domestic soccer scene in recent days is the case of League of Ireland side Waterford FC.

The Premier Division club reported two suspected Covid-19 cases this week, leading to Tuesday night's clash with Sligo Rovers being postponed.

Waterford - who are due to face Cork City at home on Saturday - yesterday confirmed that the first of those two players had tested negative, but Owens admitted the situation was “a concern” for the League of Ireland going forward.

“There's so much stake and I keep saying we've got to follow the protocols. We've got Dr Alan Byrne sitting on the expert medical group and he's as close to the key decision-makers as we can get.

“We agreed to the testing at the start. We had the concept, getting some leeway from the government and the expert group. We had to earn that right and cannot undermine that confidence. We would be extremely disappointed if people were breaking the rules or protocols around quarantine.

“There's too much at stake, even for the travel of our international teams. They could influence that.”

Asked whether he was satisfied that clubs had followed the protocols laid out, Owens replied: “We were last Friday. We were all over them Friday.

“As a result of the Waterford case we are revisiting a lot of stuff. It's very hard to control the movements of individuals. All we can do is put in the protocols, put in our compliance officer.”

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Football/Soccer