Ballinamallard manager Harry McConkey speaks to Gareth Cauldwell about their non-elite status frustration and how he feels clubs now have a decision to make after too many false dawns

GC: How disappointing was it to learn that Championship clubs would not receive elite status last week?

HMcC: After weeks of meetings and discussions between Club reps at NIFL and the IFA it had, at one stage, looked very likely that we would be granted our Elite Status.

Sadly, however the timing of the IFA’s approach to the Department of Communities and the rapid rise in Covid-19 cases in our communities meant it was never going to receive a green light.

The great disappointment is not about the decision taken on December 24 but the fact that if the IFA had chosen to go with this request much earlier in October or early November it would definitely had a much greater chance of success. This in turn could have left all Championship clubs in a more hopeful place of completing the season.

GC: What do you feel is the way forward now for the Championship and do you feel that if you don’t have elite status then it throws doubt on whether the league will even be finished?

HMcC: Without Elite Status I do believe there is now a real question to be posed for all 12 Championship clubs. Are you happy to play 22 games and an Irish Cup in a 14 week period or do you declare the season null and void and we all come back in June or July for some quality preparation and then kick off a new league campaign in August 2021? Clubs must decide and soon.

We also must remember with the NIFL curtailment policy presently in place our league season could be curtailed when everyone has played each other once so you could be champions or relegated after only 11 games.

This for me reflects the true and pitiful status that our NIFL Championship has been reduced to since March 2020.

GC: I have counted four provisional dates that have passed for a start to the Championship (October 17, October 24, November 28 and now January 2). When did you start back for pre-season and how many weeks work have you done with your players in preparation?

HMcC: We started back on June 8 with part squads and limited staff, then in July we were allowed full squad then in October we were back to limited numbers and in November reduced to no ball just fitness! We have organised 67 sessions (includes 13 friendly games and one North West Cup game) over a 27 week period.

GC: How frustrating and disheartening is it for both players and management to keep seeing the start date knocked back?

HMcC: Very very frustrating. Players naturally are tired of being given false finish lines, while managers and staff are equally frustrated for them. We see how much they have committed and we take pride in getting them to a good level mentally and physically and then they have to take another knock - so we share in their pain. If ever there was an environment to test the resilience and character of my players and staff then this is it.

GC: How difficult is it to keep players motivated to prepare for season that again has no start date?

HMcC: It is a challenge but my staff team have been superb throughout this horrible pandemic and we have tried to create a caring stimulating and healthy environment for all our players.

They all know we have been there for them on and off the pitch day and night. Always with their safety in mind. There has been a great bond formed between staff and players and I believe this will stand by us all in the future.

GC: What will your players work on for the next five weeks of this lockdown?

HMcC: I wanted Santa to give them all a crystal ball each for Christmas but he was told ‘no ball allowed’ by his governing body, Mrs Claus!

Seriously, we have tried to positively reinforce good behaviours relating to the players physical and mental fitness long before Covid-19 entered their world.

Since March they have had individual programmes to work on and personal targets but I remind them of John Wooden’s words: ‘Peace of mind is knowing you did everything you could to be the best at that particular moment’.

Whatever NIFL /IFA decide to do with us in the coming weeks or months I simply want my players and my staff to know they can have peace of mind and that we will be there when the moment comes.