NIFL given Irish Cup dates headache as they aim for 38-game season

The Irish FA have pencilled in a 32-team Irish Cup in May

EVERYONE including NIFL chiefs expressed their surprise and disappointment by discovering via a sports journalist’s Twitter account on Thursday night that the Irish FA had pencilled in dates for this season’s 32-team Irish Cup in May "without consultation".

During a virtual press call yesterday morning, NIFL officials also revealed the Danske Bank Irish Premiership season could run until the first week in June.

Highly respected sports journalist Steven Beacom broke the news on Thursday evening that the Irish Cup would be played over a three-week period between May 1-21.

While it may be some time before the Irish FA receive government clearance for those intermediate clubs named to compete in this season’s Irish Cup, it’s almost certain some will not participate due to the fact their players haven’t played a competitive match in 12 months because of Covid restrictions.

“We have had discussions with the IFA and, to be fair to their President [David Martin], he has been very clear in the media that the Irish Cup would be played,” explained NIFL chairman Gerard Lawlor.

“In NIFL we have always worked around five Irish Cup dates. What we weren’t aware of was that there was a meeting last night [Wednesday night] and that there were actual dates being set.”

Previously both NIFL and the IFA were looking at March or April dates for the prestigious cup competition to be played but NIFL felt "blindsided" by Thursday night’s social media announcement especially when they’re trying desperately to conclude their own 38-game league in a “very tight” timeframe.

“Four or five [Irish Cup] dates were mentioned in May without any consultation with us. And that’s the disappointment for us,” said Lawlor.

Both Lawlor and NIFL’s Interim Managing Director Steven Mills said they would do all they can to assist their Championship and PIL clubs in preparation for the Irish Cup.

A subject that hasn’t gone away over the past 12 months is the deep frustration felt by many Championship clubs over their inactivity and the perceived failure of NIFL not to acquire elite status for them at the outset.

By the time elite status was bestowed on the Championship they still couldn’t resume as government legislation had subsequently been tweaked that kept them on the sidelines.

“If we go back to last summer whenever the first return to football was permitted, and that was for the Irish Cup, the government was very clear it was directly linked to a very small number of games and clubs’ ability to safely manage matches,” said Mills.

“So that got the Irish Cup played. When we were plotting a new season the intention was for all our leagues to get back up and running but the government themselves changed legislation by Christmas time that prevented the start of new elite competitions.

“We’d obviously started the Premiership in October and then that put us in a really difficult position with the Championship and PIL. Now we have requested and the feeling is that legislation will change…”

Lawlor acknowledged that NIFL “aren’t perfect” and that they have been working in very difficult circumstances while also lamenting the fact that the lower rungs of football didn’t restart.

“I know it’s the opinion of some people but I can assure everyone, as late as four o’clock on Christmas Eve, we were in a meeting with the Championship clubs,” said the Cliftonville official.

“This has been the biggest frustration - that we weren’t able to deliver, not just for the Championship but PIL clubs. I totally get that frustration.

“I'd be concerned that people will walk away from the game and take up other hobbies and doing other things.”

He added: “I fully understand the frustration and we do get it. We’ve tried to keep dialogue open, we’ve tried to speak to them and told them that there is support here for them. There is outreach support available for players and coaches.

“If it was in our gift, I can assure you, we would have them back playing but it’s not in our gift to do that.”

The two officials insisted that was still NIFL's intention to play a full 38-game league campaign even though time is against them but they have the fall-back option of a truncated 33-game season.

“Uefa have talked about June 1 for European nominations and we are still in discussions with them,” said Lawlor.

“Now, this is only a personal opinion, I believe there could be a bit of flexibility that there could be another one or two match days and that we could stretch that out with Uefa.

“Do they really need the name of a team; it’s IFA 1, IFA 2, IFA 3 and Irish Cup winners, so there is maybe the first week of June which could open up another two or three match-days.”

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