AMATEUR League football managers from across the city are split on whether or not the current season should be voided in the wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Last week, Northern Amateur Football League (NAFL) chairman Terry Pateman revealed their position on the matter when the Irish FA asked the junior leagues to state their preferred option on how the season could be concluded.
The options were to void the season, finish the leagues with trophies allocated according to the league positions on March 13 or to try and finish the leagues in the summer.
Pateman’s response was that NAFL would support a decision to void the 2019/20 season. His views have been met with a mixed response from various clubs, but his opinion struck a chord with Crumlin Star manager Paul Trainor.
The North Belfast side are bidding for a fourth successive Premier Division title and a locked in an engrossing three-way battle with Ballynahinch Olympic and East Belfast. However, Trainor feels that football is of secondary importance right now.
“I have to agree with the comments made by the NAFL chairman (Terry Pateman) at the present moment,” said Trainor.
“There’s a lot of lives at stake. We’ve never came across anything like this. Apart from lives, there’s a lot of livelihoods at stake too.
“Football is secondary in my mindset at the present moment.
“We don’t know when we are going to get to the end of this. People are living day-to-day and people don’t know a lot about it.
“Football is just a sport, yes is a major part of people’s lives, but there are people dying around us and that is paramount at the minute.”
Crumlin Star’s position as the kingpins of Amateur football had looked precarious before football came to a halt.
League-leaders Ballynahinch are eight points ahead of the defending champions, but have played five games more. Yet, East Belfast are unbeaten in third and are only a point behind Star with two games in hand.
Trainor though feels his side would have retained their crown as they still had to play East Belfast home and away, but he doesn’t envisage his theory being proved right or wrong.
“Would we have won the league? Most definitely. We had just started to find our form again, but it is irrelevant,” stated the Crumlin Star boss.
“Our second 11 are top of the league and in the semi-final of the Walter Moore Cup. I’ve already discussed this with people from the league and I don’t think anyone is hard done by – people’s lives are at stake.
“We are used to winning the league and we would have done so again. Would our seconds have won the league? Yes, definitely.
“I don’t know when things are going to get going again. There are a lot of teams in Intermediate Cup semi-finals and what not, but football is irrelevant.
“I know people are coming up with different table times and suggestions, but I just can’t see football being played this side of the summer.”
Trainor added that his players are keeping in contact on a regular basis through Whatsapp and stressed the importance of looking out for each other in such trying times.
“We have our Whatsapp group and everyone associated with our club is on it,” said Trainor.
“There’s a bit of banter on it and everyone is trying to keep their spirits up when you are sitting in the house. We are having wee quizzes and things like that.
“The GAA boys are usually out Monday to Thursday training so it is strange for them. Everyone is painting or doing up the gardens. Hopefully, we all get to the other side of it and football will be a great outlet for people again – God I do miss it!”
Immaculata preceded Crumlin Star’s reign as Premier Division champions when they lifted the title in 2016.
Current Mac boss Brian McCaul took over at the Divis club earlier this season and they looked destined for a mid-table finish after an indifferent league campaign. It is for that reason that McCaul has no strong preference for how this season ends.
“I think everyone will have different opinions based on their own circumstances,” said McCaul.
“We are probably somewhere in the middle. We’re still in the Clarence Cup, but the league is a bit of a dead-rubber for us. We weren’t going to go down and we weren’t going to challenge.
“I can understand the frustration of those teams who are challenging on all fronts. In terms of our league, it is very tight at the top. I don’t think anyone could have a gripe because nobody is miles ahead like Liverpool for example. If we were challenging for the title, I would find it extremely frustrating.
“Someone who is in a relegation battle will be pitching for the season to be aborted.
“For us, I wouldn’t have an objection and I don’t think any of our players would have an objection to seeing the season finish over the summer.”
He added: “Some teams in our league haven’t even played half of their league games, so it is a big ask.
“Usually in the Amateur League around the end of April, you have that run of Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday games. That’s a big ask for Amateur League players. It is alright doing it for two or three weeks at the end of the season, but do to it then start a new season would be a full year of football. I don’t think our club would object to either scenario.
“Ideally, you wouldn’t want this season and what we’ve done to be wasted, but what are the alternatives?”
For Rosario manager Barry Baggley, however, Pateman’s comments were premature considering the IFA’s statement that all football is cancelled until April 30 at the earliest.
Baggley says he was disappointed that clubs were not consulted before the NAFL replied to the IFA.
“Firstly, I was disappointed to hear the comments through social media. Somebody put it in our Whatsapp group that it was in one of the Sunday papers last week,” said Baggley.
“On Monday, I saw the comments on other media outlets. I got in contact with our chairperson and our secretary and asked if they had heard anything from the league and they hadn’t.
“It is disappointing to hear those comments being made without consulting the clubs or getting feedback from the teams in the Amateur League.
“Secondly, I don’t see what is the rush on making a decision when nobody has a crystal ball. It seems like he (Pateman) wants to get this season finished and start the new season. Why not see how this pans out?
“Bar a few teams, most teams have 10 games or less to play. We’ve only six games left. He is making a rash decision. To finish our schedule, you are only talking about four Saturdays and two midweek games.
“You might have to do away with seconds football and do away with the cups, but you could still finish the leagues in May and June and still have time to start the new season in mid-August.
“Health is more important than anything, but I can’t understand why they don’t just wait? Take their lead from the IFA and don’t make blasé comments about what should happen. This is about more than the chairman – all clubs and all teams should have a voice.
“The IFA have said that no football will take place until at least April 30, so that was the issue parked until then.”
Baggley also stressed that he isn’t blinkered by the fact that his side are on the cusp of securing promotion to the Premier Division for next season.
Currently top of Division 1A, Rosario need only to win three of their final six games to clinch one of the top promotion berths.
“I don’t want it to sound like sour grapes because we are doing well and sitting top of the league,” added Baggley.
“It isn’t anything to do with that. If we were sitting in fourth or fifth, I’d still want the league to be finished. I am not going to lie, it would be massively disappointing for all the work we’ve done from pre-season through to now if the season is null and void.
“If we win three games, we are guaranteed promotion. It is important for the integrity of the league that they make an attempt to finish it.”
Rosario’s South Belfast counterparts Aquinas are also vying for promotion and are currently second in a very tight Division 1B.
“I think there is no right or wrong answer here,” stated McCormick.
“(Terry) Pateman said we’ve nearly 600 games to complete and, from his point of view, how are you going to get those matches played?
“He is looking at it from a health and safety perspective, which is what he has to do as chairman. I can understand exactly what he is saying.
“For us (Aquinas), it is not ideal because our first team is sitting second, our second team are top and our third team are top of their section and the second and thirds teams are in semi-finals of cups.
“We have a lot to play for in the last six weeks. What other option are available? How long is this situation going to last? Nobody knows.
“Do we run the league into August and September? I think it is a very difficult situation. I think people’s health and safety are more important.
“It is going to get worse before it gets better over the coming weeks and it is hard to know when Amateur football will be able to resume.”
“Everyone has their own views and, for us, we’d like to see the season finished off, but we are realistic. We are grown ups here and this is a situation that nobody has seen before and, hopefully, will never see again.”
McCormick also reasoned that, should the leagues be finished, the NAFL would need to allow extra time for a mini pre-season to allow teams to get back up to speed.
“If we are talking about playing games again, you will need another two or three weeks to get everybody up to speed again,” added the Aquinas boss.
“There hasn’t been any games for a month. We’ve asked boys to keep themselves fit and ticking over, but you’ve to think of the welfare of the players too.
“We aren’t so bad in that we’ve only six or seven games remaining, but what about the teams with maybe a dozen league games and a few cup competitions still to play? I think the chairman is stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) has issued an updated statement reiterating its desire to conclude the Irish Premiership, Championship and Premier Intermediate League.
“The NI Football League continues to engage closely with the Irish FA and the European Leagues regarding the relevant calendar matters to allow for the resumption and conclusion of the current season,” the statement reads.
“As a member of the European Leagues, we have been in regular discussion with other leagues across the continent and continue to review information and guidance from UEFA and the European Clubs Association.
“Following further guidance received from the European Leagues we remain committed at this stage to completing the current NI Football League season at Premiership, Championship and Premier Intermediate League level. There is also a commitment to still contest the 2020 Women’s Premiership season this year.
In reality, it remains impossible to commit to a date when competitions could resume, this will of course depend on the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic and the guidance from the UK Government and health authorities but most importantly when it is safe for everyone to return to a sporting arena.
“The NI Football League remains committed to continuing to assist our member clubs with support and guidance, including in relation to funding and financial support. The health and wellbeing of fans, staff and players and the wider community remains the NI Football League’s highest priority at this time.”