Belfast Celtic, St James' Swifts and Newington to decide whether to join Queen’s University, Newry City, Harland and Wolff Welders and Institute by withdrawing from this year's competition
SEVERAL local Intermediate sides are pondering whether or not to compete in the revamped Irish Cup following the announcement by the Irish FA that the competition will take place in May.
On Tuesday, the Executive published a “pathway” for easing restrictions, but did not give any dates for when non-elite sport can return.
Under the latest guidelines, the “cautious first steps” phrase would see outdoor sport resume with no changes to come before April 1.
That could leave Intermediate sides with a maximum of four weeks to prepare for their respective Irish Cup games.
In a statement, Irish FA president David Martin said: “We have consistently said that it is our intention to complete our marquee domestic competition and it is our vision to deliver this.
“We understand that Intermediate and Championship clubs need as much time to plan and prepare as possible. There will be an opportunity for clubs to arrange friendly matches which will hopefully go some way to negate the lack of football they’ve experienced.
“We will work closely with clubs, leagues and officials throughout the process and liaise regularly with the Northern Ireland Executive.”
As of today (Friday), four teams have already withdrawn from the competition, namely Queen’s University, Newry City, Harland and Wolff Welders and Institute and others could follow suit.
The Irish Cup is set to be run over a three-week period between May 1 and May 21, but several local club managers have voiced their concerns over the plans.
Belfast Celtic boss Stephen McAlorum, a two-time winner of the Irish Cup with Glentoran, said they’ll make a decision on their participation in the coming days, and claims the IFA have shown “a lack of respect” for non-Irish Premiership teams.
“If it was up to me, I wouldn’t let the team take part. It is hard enough playing against Irish Premiership opposition, but we wouldn’t have played a game in eight or nine months,” said McAlorum.
“Over the last year, we’ve maybe played two or three games. That’s far from ideal. We’ve been in and out of training and the boys are only keeping themselves tickling over.
“What they are asking us to do shows a lack of respect for teams at this level. You would also have to consider the amount of injuries that could have to the players in a big game like that.
“I think what should have happened is that they should proceed with the Irish Premiership teams and redraw the competition and, hopefully, next year will be a new year and you’ve had all the teams back in the Irish Cup. It just makes a bit of a mockery of the competition to be honest.”
McAlorum believes the club will, ultimately, fulfil their fixture against Irish Premiership side Carrick Rangers with Taylors Avenue hosting the game.
“If we have to play it, we’ll just get on with it. I think the players probably want to play in it,” added McAlorum.
“The Irish Cup is always something to look forward to. You want to play against the big teams, the players want to test themselves against bigger teams and the supporters want a day out. If you get a bit of a run, you can get a few quid for the club.
“With no fans and having not played football in so long, it loses that magic that people associate with the Irish Cup. We were buzzing when we were drawn against Carrick because that’s exactly the type of teams you want to be playing in the Irish Cup.
“Myself and Paddy Kelly will meet with the board and see what the best way to go about it – I think we’ll probably play it as there is talk of sanctions for teams who don’t take part.
“If it comes to a point and other teams are withdrawing from the competition, then it is something we’ll look at again.”
Fellow West Belfast side St James’ Swifts are also in the last 32 and were set to take on Harland and Wolff Welders before the NIFL Championship side joined QUB and Newry by withdrawing from the competition.
Speaking before their opponents made their intention known, Swifts’ manager Barry Johnston expressed similar concerns to McAlorum over player welfare and the potential for injuries given the lack of game time his players have had this season.
“If they give us a week or so to train beforehand, it would be impossible,” said Johnston.
“I know Harland and Wolff would have had the same time and preparation as ourselves. If we only have one week of training before a game and someone hurts themselves badly, then that’s on us as management.
“That’s a worry. For the welfare of the players, I think it would be crazy to play in a tournament of that magnitude without the proper training.
“If it was St James’ Swifts versus the likes of Cliftonville – I would say no straight away. It wouldn’t be fair on our players.
“You wouldn’t be doing yourself, the players or the local football community justice. We have to talk to the committee, but I would say we will probably remain in the competition. We don’t know if we are allowed to play any friendlies beforehand.”
Newington manager Conor Crossan has echoed the sentiments of the West Belfast clubs, stressing the importance of giving players adequate time to prepare for an Irish Cup tie.
The Irish FA also confirmed last week that the Intermediate Cup wouldn’t be played this season.
The North Belfast side lost last year’s final 2-0 to Dollingstown, with the last four teams in last year’s Intermediate Cup gaining a place in the revamped Irish Cup alongside beaten semi-finalists Belfast Celtic and St James’ Swifts.
While Crossan believes his players will want to fulfil the fixture, he feels the club, like many others at the grade, have been put in an unfair position by the IFA.
“I haven’t been talking to anyone at the club, the committee or anything - we’ll put it to the players but, personally, I wouldn’t want to play in it,” stated Crossan.
“What they are expecting of us, in terms of the risk of injury, is unfair.
“I’m sure the players just want to go out and play and I expect they’ll be in favour of playing.
“I know they are talking about starting and finishing the competition in May, but there have been different dates floating about for the Irish Cup before. We just don’t know yet.
“We also have to find out if there are any repercussions for us not playing.”
The Newington boss also has concerns regarding a proposed alternative cup competition for NIFL Championship and Premier Intermediate League teams.
The idea was first mooted at the start of February when the aforementioned leagues were cancelled.
Any regionalised cup competition could give so-called non-elite teams the chance of vital game-time before the Irish Cup in May, but with no clear guidance from the Executive as to when teams can return to action, Crossan feels Intermediate teams are being short-changed.
“We are playing Knockbreda in the Irish Cup, but they are in the same position as us and it will be very hard to motivate the team to come back to play maybe one match,” added Crossan.
“You have the likes of Cliftonville, who are playing every week, facing Portstewart, who have to come to Solitude to face the Reds.
“Then you could be sitting until June before pre-season starts – that’s a big ask of the players and the coaches alike.
“We are just being used to fulfil the fixtures in the Irish Cup. If they didn’t have the Championship and Premier Intermediate teams and that, you would be left with 12 teams for a knockout competition.
“It takes a bit of value away from the competition. We also don’t have a date for non-elite teams to return to training.
“There is talk of a regionalised cup competition to give teams preparation, but then who pays for the referees, the linesmen and the pitches?
“Teams are under pressure as it is with no income coming into the club. Are the IFA going to fund it?
“I wouldn’t want to speculate too much one way or the other until things become a bit clearer over the next few weeks.”