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Play-off blues for hosts and guests

Confirmation that Euro match is behind closed doors poses more problems for home side than Ireland


DISAPPOINTMENT: Republic of Ireland fans will not be allowed attend the Euro 2020 play-off against Slovakia. Pic: Sportsfile

DISAPPOINTMENT: Republic of Ireland fans will not be allowed attend the Euro 2020 play-off against Slovakia. Pic: Sportsfile

DISAPPOINTMENT: Republic of Ireland fans will not be allowed attend the Euro 2020 play-off against Slovakia. Pic: Sportsfile

So, is Ireland's game in Slovakia definitely going ahead?

Yes. For now. It was confirmed yesterday that, by order of the Slovak government, the match could proceed but only if it was played behind closed doors.


CLOSED GATES: Tehelne Pole Stadium in Brataslava

CLOSED GATES: Tehelne Pole Stadium in Brataslava

CLOSED GATES: Tehelne Pole Stadium in Brataslava

But that could change?

There is no guarantee that Slovakia v Ireland, or any of the playoff games, will go ahead. This story can change in a matter of hours. At noon on Monday, the Slovak FA declared that the Euro 2020 game was on, that their domestic league would proceed as normal though underage football in the country was postponed.

Within three hours the government had usurped that and imposed a blanket ban on all sporting activity for 14 days.

Slovakia, like Ireland, have a caretaker government after recent elections but prime minister Peter Pellegrini has made it clear that his office, and not the blazers in the Slovak FA, are in control of this story.

So what happened yesterday?

Acting on advice (or orders, to be more precise) from the government and the department of health there, the Slovak FA updated their position to say that the game with Ireland was going ahead, but no fans would be admitted.

What about the Irish fans who'd already bought tickets?

They can apply for a refund.

Can they still travel and enjoy their few days in Bratislava?

They are EU citizens so technically, yes, but that could change. The Slovak government are taking Coronavirus very seriously, banning all flights from Italy on Monday night.

They could do the same with Dublin-Bratislava flights, the route chosen by the majority of the travelling support either on scheduled Ryanair flights or charters, though some fans will have booked to travel via nearby Vienna or other airports.

What if they turn up and try to blag their way in?

The Tehelne Pole Stadium is right in the city centre so blocking access would be tricky. But the Slovak government is not messing around in dealing with Coronavirus, and a strong police cordon at the ground would be expected.

It would be a brave Ireland fan who tried to mess with well-trained member of Slovakia's riot police.

Ah, but don't the inventive Irish fans always find a way?

There is the Three Towers complex right beside the stadium, three 25-storey buildings where a rooftop view just might give you a look at the pitch.

Maybe a polite request and a €20 present for the residents could open a few doors. But fans' group YBIG have advised supporters to follow official advice on travel.

Can the FAI not just claim the fans are directors and sponsors, just lift them over the turnstile?

In a previous regime, yes, something like a raffle in one of Bratislava's Irish pubs the night before the game to win one of 50 golden tickets as a "sponsor". Former CEO John Delaney was filmed holding a raffle for six match tickets in an Irish pub in Tallinn before the Euro 2012 play-off there.

Delaney also admitted on RTE radio that, for a behind-closed-doors friendly between the Republic and Northern Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in 2015, a game to which the media were not admitted under any circumstances, supporters deemed friendly towards the regime were allowed in.

"These guys who follow us all over the world, we had 40, 45-year-olds working as ball boys, it was good to see. They haven't missed a game," Delaney boasted on the Ray Darcy show.

The new-look FAI would not go down that road.

How many are in the official party?

It depends on who's in charge. In the previous FAI regime, the partner of then CEO John Delaney was frequently on the team plane as part of the official party but the new board of the FAI had planned to be a lot more strict even before this crisis.

Typically, a 45-strong group of players and coaching/medical staff are accompanied by members of the FAI board (10) and sponsors (6-8), but senior FAI sources said last night that no board members would travel to Slovakia and it would be a skeleton staff to accompany the team.

Will the absence of spectators change the game and the outcome?

Ireland have never played in a proper behind-closed-doors game before. Bratislava was never going to be a cauldron of hate as the Slovak nation is not in love with the national team (the game is not yet sold out) so it's not as if the home crowd would play a major role.

Ex-players Kevin Doyle and Kevin Kilbane, on TV duty last night, differed on whether having no fans would help or hinder Ireland. Kilbane reckoned the lack of a crowd would help Ireland but Doyle says the players often fed off the noisy away Irish support and that they would be missed.

How are Slovakia holding up with all of this?

In purely football terms, not well. The seriousness of the Coronavirus in Italy is a major problem. At least six of their senior squad play club football in Italy. With Serie A postponed indefinitely they won't play or train between now and the playoff.

A bigger worry is whether their Italian-based players can even travel: flights between Italy and Slovakia are suspended, and the government have demanded that all Slovaks returning there from Italy go into quarantine for 14 days.

What about Northern Ireland's game in Bosnia?

On Monday the Bosnian FA said it was 'game on'. By Tuesday morning a case of Coronavirus had been declared in Zenica, host city for the match and ticket sales were suspended. Expect a behind closed doors game.

What about the Euro 2020 finals?

UEFA just want to get the play-offs played first but there are serious concerns about the tournament overall, due to the multi-city nature of the finals (that looks like a really good idea now) and the fact that Rome is one of the host cities.

Will the play-offs and the Euro finals be played this year?

It may be Cheltenham week, but don't bet on it.