Daniel McDonnell: 'Joint bid for U-21 event raises plenty of questions for the two associations'

The image presented at Windsor Park yesterday was one of unity, even if there was a tacit acknowledgement that some cracks remain under the surface.

IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson was joined by his FAI counterpart John Delaney midway through the daily briefing on the Euro U-21 2023 bid as it veered towards other subjects. The only discomfort came when the thorny issue of player eligibility was raised. Nelson answered quite diplomatically.

“That’s not really a matter for today,” replied Nelson. “We know that players have a choice and we accept that players have a choice and our job here in Northern Ireland is to make a pathway that is the best it can be and to encourage players to play for Northern Ireland.

“That’s what I’m focused on. I think we have a good overall relationship.”

Clearly, the associations are showing they can work together by launching a joint attempt to bring a significant event to these shores.

The fine details of the bid still have to be formulated and a decision will not be made until 2020 so there’s a road to go in this process, but it’s an interesting idea.

Questions raised by it were addressed.

How did this come about?

The idea came from IFA president David Martin and Delaney said that is why Windsor Park will host the final if the bid wins.

Both nations have been given responsibility for hosting smaller underage events – the European U-17 championships will take place in the south next year. This is considered the next progression.

Is Brexit an obstacle?

Nelson and Delaney both seemed to indicate that the cross-border co-operation angle would help their cause – they have both sought assistance from their respective governments although the situation north of the border is complex.

“What it will show is that organisations like ours can work together in a post-Brexit world,” said Nelson.

Delaney went glass half-full.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that uniting the round ball – two associations on one island – given the Brexit context and all that goes on with that, it certainly has a uniqueness,” he said.

How many stadiums are needed?

That is slightly unclear because it’s possible – but not confirmed – that the U-21 Euros will be a 16-team tournament by 2023.

At the moment it’s a 12-team event with eight stadiums required. Eight stadiums were floated as options yesterday – Windsor Park, the Aviva, Ballymena, Ravenhill, Turner’s Cross, Thomond Park, Tallaght Stadium and the new Dalymount.

Do they meet requirements?

UEFA look for 8,000-capacity stadiums but they do offer dispensations – a 6,000-seater venue in San Marino got the nod for next year.

Delaney said he wants a redeveloped Dalymount as part of the mix – it’s due to be completed in the winter of 2022 as a 6,000-capacity venue. Turner’s Cross is around 7,300 but the FAI CEO was adamant it will be fine.

Were other venues mentioned?

The Brandywell was raised, but Nelson referenced the 3G pitch as the reason it’s not in the shake-up. Delaney was asked about the absence of a western presence and refused to rule out other stadia coming into the equation. He was asked directly if the associations would ask the GAA for help and said he wouldn’t rule it out – but the tone was cool. That doesn’t appear to be on the agenda.

Is there a cost aspect?

Nelson said that UEFA work with hosts for underage tournaments to ensure they do not incur significant costs.

That said, both men hinted that some government support may be required if there is infrastructural work needed – the earlier presentation cited the economic benefit of the competition. A figure of €20m was thrown out with 250,000 people attending matches in Poland last year.

Training bases will be required for each competing nation although Delaney referenced that universities can help here.

Is this linked to the World Cup 2030 bid?

The two associations are currently engaged in a feasibility study with England, Scotland and Wales as regards the biggest show of them all in 2030.

“I wouldn’t connect it to this,” said Delaney, who added that the U-21 idea came first.

Are there rival bids?

It’s too early to say; a 2021 tilt had been floated but Slovenia and Hungary are bidding as co-hosts for that. Given that UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin is Slovenian, they might fancy their chances.

Delaney was coy on whether his UEFA position would be a help – “David and Patrick are as well known in UEFA as I am,” he insisted – but yet he also dropped into conversation that the idea had met with a favourable response with Switzerland.

He is close to Ceferin and on the board so the percentage call is that the Irish idea fares well.

Will this lead to an All-Ireland League?

Don’t get carried away. Nelson appeared positive on a return for the cross-border Setanta Cup before adding crucially that funding is needed and it’s basically up to the clubs. It would be a stretch to say that this news will lead to longer-term unions.

Northern Ireland’s visit to Dublin for a November 15 friendly is noteworthy but the next hurdle to cross for both is a harmonious return encounter in Belfast – that would be the acid test for any new era.

Will both countries automatically qualify if the bid is successful? Delaney said the decision on this issues lay with UEFA but it was made clear that an increase to a 16-team event would make it much easier for two host teams to get a pass.

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