THE Vice-Chairman of the NIFL (Northern Ireland Football League) Championship Committee, Jeff Aiken – who is also Ballinamallard United’s NIFL representative – has voiced his frustration on the lack of football, to date, and stressed that they have been pushing for elite status from the outset.

The NIFL Championship is yet to start and a request from the IFA in December to have the division deemed elite was turned down by the NI Executive, in the face of rising Covid-19 cases in the country, leaving the league in a current state of limbo.

And with a number of clubs now against the Championship season starting at all, it could end up with the campaign being declared null and void.

The clubs will be asked to give their views on the matter at the next Championship meeting, which is scheduled for the end of the month.

“I’m personally very frustrated with the lack of football and the way things have gone, so I absolutely share the issues that Tom [Elliott], our Chairman, and the committee have had, and Harry [McConkey], the coaches and the players have had,” said Aiken.

“Since the day and hour that we heard that we weren’t elite, myself and Trevor McCann [Chairman, NIFL Championship Committee] were in discussions with the Managing Director of NIFL, Andy Johnston. We met with the Chair and Vice-Chair of the NIFL Board, and we sought the support of the NIFL Premiership Committee.

‘Singing from the same hymn sheet’

“I think all of NIFL have been singing from the same hymn sheet to the IFA, but it was an IFA decision, and while there is a part of me that can understand that they are trying to be cautious, when you look at football in the United Kingdom, and the levels that they have gone down to with elite, you can’t but feel disappointed that we also weren’t elite.

“In the Championship, we have a lot of professional players and we have managers and coaches who derive an income from the game, and for some of those people that income is important to them as well, so you have to feel for all those people.

“As Vice-Chair of the Championship, I’m just disappointed – we have been trying everything we can for some time to get the IFA to move on it,” he added.

There did look as if there was going to be movement on it last month, with the IFA finally agreeing to seek elite status for Championship clubs and the Irish Cup, but it simply came at the wrong time with rising Covid cases.

“We had said that we were happy to adapt all their protocols; we are happy to go behind closed doors; we are happy to have separate facilities and do all of that, and then the next argument we put forward to them was around the Women’s Premiership.

“It was coming to an end, which was three games a week, so we argued that if you let the Championship get up and running, it is only another three games, and they agreed that was a good time.

“If the Women’s Premiership had finished in October, I think the IFA would have changed their view at that time. We were just unlucky that the Women’s Premiership ended just at the time when Covid was starting to rise again.”

Following the decision for this not to be granted, Aiken has revealed that some clubs are now against getting the season started at all.

“The Championship clubs were totally united in looking at us getting back to play before Christmas, but I’m not sure that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet on that now.

“There are differing opinions on whether we should seek to get the Championship up and running or not between the Championship clubs, and I think that just reflects the current state of Covid throughout Northern Ireland.”

Indeed, he says that at the next Championship meeting, club representatives will be asked for their clubs views on the matter and if the majority of clubs are against getting under way, then the NIFL Championship Committee will ask for the season to be declared null and void.

“At our last Championship meeting, every club was asked did they want us to seek to get the Championship up and going, and it was fairly split.

“We weren’t able to take a position on it because not all the representatives could speak on behalf of their football club.

“What we have said is that the next time we are meeting – which is probably going to be towards the end of this month – it will be on the agenda and each club’s representative will be asked to give their club’s opinion on it.

“If lockdown is extended for a longer period of time, we probably won’t have that meeting in January; it might push it out a bit further, but the longer it goes without a meeting, it has to be more likely that there will be more clubs going to be in favour of not seeking to commence the league,” he explained.

If clubs do decide to start the season, there is a curtailment plan whereby if each side has played 11 games, then the season can be called. Aiken is adamant though that if the season does get underway then it will be with the aim of completing a 22-game campaign.

“People have focused on the 11 games. If you have completed the 11 games, it does mean that the league can be decided, and by that I mean in that scenario the season would have someone promoted and someone relegated.

“However, you would only be resuming on the hope that you would get all 22 games played, otherwise it is making a mockery of it.

“I know a lot of clubs feel that if you were to relegate or promote a team on 11 games it wouldn’t be a true reflection, and I totally understand that.

“I think the position will be: can we get 22 games played? That is where you have to start off with.

‘Pushing against an open door’

“We do have the ability to seek permission from the IFA to extend the season and, given that happened last season, I would think we would be pushing against an open door because the IFA will probably need that to try and get the Irish Cup finished.”

Aiken also states that they will continue to push for elite status to be granted.

“Our approach has always been two things: get the Championship back up and running, and to get elite status as well.

“We want elite status, regardless of whether we get started or not this season.

“We want them to come out and say, going forward, that the Championship is elite so that we don’t get into this situation again,” he commented.

And he says that if the season does get under way that they will push for testing like is now going to happen in the Premiership when it resumes after their circuit-breaker.

“If we get back playing and the IFA have got Covid testing facilities, we would absolutely be demanding that for our players and developing the same levels of support to put that in place.

“I couldn’t, as the Vice-Chair, sanction anything else. We have a duty to look after all our players, so we would be pressing for that,” he said.