Championship clubs will meet tomorrow week to decide whether a return to football is viable this season, Sunday Life Sport can reveal.
aving not been granted elite status, Championship sides have been kicking their heels for the last 10 months, unable to play League football since March last year.
The Northern Ireland Football League had hoped to begin the new season in recent weeks, but the new Covid-19 variant and a recent upsurge in cases have put an end to those plans.
Clubs in the second tier wanted to wait on the Stormont Executive’s decision on lockdown restrictions and now that it has been declared that regulations will remain in place until March 5 at the earliest, hopes of a full Championship season are on the wane.
“A Committee meeting has been scheduled for February 1, at which we will have a full discussion on the chances of playing this season,” said Ballinamallard United representative Jeff Aiken, who is also vice-chairman of the Championship Committee.
“We thought it would be best to give the clubs 10 days to mull over the Executive decision to extend lockdown, have a discussion at club level then come to the meeting with an official view.
“Undoubtedly up for discussion will be whether or not to void the season. My view, and that of my club, would be to start the season and play 22 games, but that may prove too difficult.
“We could extend the season, but there is a fear among clubs that we will be told to finish after 11 games, and that holds little appeal.
“My gut feeling is that we couldn’t play a League made up of just 11 games. The aim is to play 22 games, but that could prove very difficult.
“We have been invited to play in the Irish Cup, but I feel it would be grossly unfair to play without having competitive games beforehand. Maybe the Challenge Cup Committee might consider pushing the Cup back and playing it quickly.
“However, I cannot envisage a scenario whereby the League season is voided for Championship clubs but they will take part in the Irish Cup.”
Knockbreda and NIFL Board member Colin Russell, meanwhile, said: “It’s getting near impossible to play the season at this stage.
“As each deadline passes, the situation becomes more and more dire. The earliest we could play is March 5 – earliest – and the teams would need at least four weeks of training, because by then we will have had a longer break than a normal close season.
“We have had a tragedy at our own club that has really brought home the dangers of the current coronavirus pandemic as our treasurer, Gary Kincaid, was buried last Wednesday.
“Six weeks ago, I didn’t know anyone who had contracted Covid-19, but that was a tragic reminder of how dangerous the virus can be and I really think football must take a back seat for now.”
Meanwhile, Aiken believes there is little appetite among Championship clubs for a summer switch.
Last week, Sunday Life Sport canvassed all 12 Premiership clubs for their views with only three – Ballymena United, Glenavon and Carrick Rangers – dead set against a change.
Championship sides will also have their say if a proposal to make a seasonal switch is actually put in front of them, but no decisions will be taken in the immediate future.
“We have a Championship Committee meeting on February 1 and, while the issue of summer football may be discussed, there are no plans to give a formal view,” said Championship Committee vice-chairman Aiken.
“Various models have been suggested with Premiership clubs keen to hold onto the Boxing Day fixtures, which don’t hold the same appeal in the Championship.
“If and when we have a proposal put in front of us, we will ask the clubs for their views, but right now the feeling I get is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“This is not a Championship view, it’s just a gut feeling I have. No one is jumping up and down screaming for summer football.
“There are a lot of things to be looked at and addressed before the issue can be decided on, if it gets to that stage.
“For example, if the Championship switched to a summer season but the amateur season didn’t change, there are real fears that some clubs could lose players to amateur clubs.
“If a proposal was put to Championship clubs, we would have to look at all the implications and then decide if it is right for our clubs.”