Relegation format backlash could delay League of Ireland restart plans

The FAI are confident they are legally protected from any form of redress by angry clubs after their board ratified a controversial promotion/relegation format to the shortened season.

However, that assertion is set to be tested, with an appeal on behalf of Premier Division outfits expected to be lodged over the weekend.

Should that process drag on, the stated resumption date for League of Ireland fixtures of July 31 could be in jeopardy.

There had been a backlash from nine of the 10 top-flight Division clubs to the National League Executive Committee’s (NLEC) decision on Tuesday to retain the existing relegation system, despite the season being halved to 18 games due to Covid-19.

The fall-out began yesterday as a boycott by top-flight club delegates from a committee examining the future of the League led to its cancellation.

It is understood too that the policy of dividing the annual Uefa solidarity grant for youth development – currently around €800,000 – with First Division clubs could be revisited.

Rather than stick with the format whereby the team finishing second bottom needs to win a play-off to survive, top-flight clubs wanted only the basement team going down.

In the end, following a rushed survey of clubs, the NLEC voted 5-2 to retain the status quo when the season resumes.

The NLEC is comprised of three Premier Division delegates, two First Division representatives along with a member apiece from the FAI board and council.

It was the stance taken by the chairman, Shamrock Rovers rep Noel Byrne, which proved divisive, as he sided with the First Division clubs.

Rovers have a team in each of the tiers but Byrne was elected before they’d entered a reserve side into the First Division for the current season.

After initially refusing to rubberstamp the NLEC decision on Wednesday morning, requesting additional time and details, the FAI board finally anointed it at the second attempt.

Much of the meeting centred on the belief by certain board members that proper procedures were applied in reaching the outcome.

What could be key in the next phase of the saga is the alleged involvement of FAI personnel in attempting to influence clubs.

“It has come to light that clubs within this group were lobbied and pressurised by members of the FAI executive to change their position to that adopted by the First Division clubs after initially submitting letters to the FAI stating their preference for the relegation/promotion situation last weekend,” the Premier Clubs Alliance contended in a letter to FAI Chairman Roy Barrett. “There was widespread displeasure at the performance of the executives.”

Individual clubs also conveyed their annoyance. An email to the FAI board from Waterford FC's general manager Jack Power, seen by the Irish Examiner, said: “I have never known for a lower league to dictate what happens to the division above e.g. English Championship clubs deciding matters for the Premier league clubs.

“First Division clubs don't have to host streaming and pay costs associated, yet they are allowed to share in the streaming equally with the Premier Division. This seems to be beyond reason.

“As a Premier Division club, we are among the highest risk and stakeholders in the League of Ireland and deserve to be treated with far more respect.”

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