Safeguards the romance of the Cup, or damages the competition’s stature? What does staging a major tie with restricted attendance of about 350 actually do?
That’s the scene on Saturday for the Irish Cup 2nd Round tie between Queen’s University Belfast and Irish League leaders Glentoran at The Dub.
It wouldn’t be a question of course in earlier rounds, but when one of the biggest clubs in the country is involved it becomes an issue.
Of course the same thing happened two years ago in successive rounds, when Queen’s came out of the hat at home, firstly beating Linfield then losing to the Glens. With the students refusing to switch venue, fans of the visiting clubs were denied the opportunity to attend, in a competition they have ably and loyally supported for years.
No doubt there will be many fans from Glentoran outside the little ground on Saturday keen to watch the action unfold. Just try stopping them. There’s even greater momentum and groundswell of support these days for the resurgent east Belfast club than two years ago.
On the previous occasion temporary screens were easily removed and many watched from outside the stadium. But then... why were screens ever needed in the first place? If Queen’s were playing a Championship fixture there would be no such measure.
Stories have re-emerged in the build up to Saturday’s game of similar activities being planned by Glens fans, some jokingly involving blow-torches, others more seriously involving cutting tools.
Meanwhile the Glentoran club are on tenterhooks, even to the extent of appealing to their fans not to interfere with temporary ground conditions on Saturday for fear of IFA censure.
It all does seem a bit ridiculous...
Many will argue that Queen’s are right to keep the game at home, that for instance had they played Linfield anywhere other than the Dub in 2020, their historical 2-1 upset wouldn’t have happened. Probably true.
Cup traditionalists will also be content to see the team drawn out of the hat first, playing at home, forsaking a payday which moving to a larger venue would allow.
Undoubtedly there’s something to admire in the decision Queen’s have taken and no-one argues that under current rules the students are well within their rights, but is it the right thing to do, considering the tiny ground capacity?
Denying many hundreds more who want to go watch the football match hardly feels positive or promotes the local game, currently enjoying a rare splinter of vibrancy these days.
Moving the match wouldn’t necessarily have meant playing at the Oval either. Queen’s could have rented Seaview for instance, perhaps on a Monday evening, something novel, possibly interesting the BBC and helping promote the competition. I’m sure those nice people at Samuel Gelston’s Irish Whiskey wouldn’t have objected.
Instead we have a Round of 16 game in our national cup competition involving the country’s second-largest club, about to be staged in front of 350 people, a fair percentage of whom not even regular attenders.
Perhaps the Irish FA should have looked at their criteria for grounds hosting Irish Cup ties when this happened twice in 2020. Expect though, with the onset of Covid, there were more pressing issues.
By their own IFA rules a Premiership stadium must have a minimum approved capacity of 2000 persons including a minimum of 200 covered seats and an additional 800 covered seats/terraced places, with any balance made up of hard-standing such as tarmac, concrete or concrete paving.
Good for the league, but not good enough for the country’s most prestigious national cup competition, the oldest in the land, particularly whenever a Premier League club is involved.
Had such a condition existed for the Irish Cup, common sense and practical relaxation of rules could still have been catered for, based upon travelling support averages. For instance Queen’s could perhaps still host a Warrenpoint Town and possibly Dungannon or Carrick, but whenever one of the bigger clubs is involved is the Dub really still suitable?
Anyhow back to Saturday. It could be that in trying to maximize home advantage, Queen’s, enjoying improved form lately, have actually shot themselves right royally in the foot.
Everyone knows Glentoran has been much better on their travels this season than at the Oval, where they’ve already lost three times in the league and struggled against the likes of Warrenpoint and Portadown.
Away form has been nothing short of incredible with 8 wins and 2 draws in their last 10 road-trips.
Perhaps the scholars have miscalculated on this one. Possibly the governing body too?