Commenting on his letter to members, CEO Hill stated: “In relation to the ongoing Level 5 lockdown situation, it is obviously the case that currently there can be no grassroots matches or even training in any situation and we thank all of our players and volunteers for their adherence to the Government guidelines.
“We know how frustrating it is not to be playing the game we love at the moment but we all understand the wider need to control the pandemic. Being realistic, it is also very likely to be the case that this situation will extend some time beyond March 5th as the Government plans its overall approach. As such, we continue to plan carefully for the point at which we are able at all levels of our sport to look at a return to play, be it at a training or competitive level or indeed from a simple recreational perspective.”
Current Level 5 guidelines allow for the return of the SSE Airtricity Premier Division, First Division and Women’s National League in March with the season set to open with the President’s Cup meeting of league champions Shamrock Rovers and FAI Cup holders Dundalk at Tallaght Stadium on Friday, March 12th.
Senior men and women’s clubs in the League of Ireland have already, or are about to commence, pre-season training with all committed to the Government guidelines and the updated FAI Protocols which issued last week ahead of webinars on COVID-19 for all League of Ireland doctors, physios, medical staff and managers and coaches, held virtually last Saturday.
Hill added: “We are of course grateful to Government for allowing us to continue to play the game at senior elite level and we look forward to seeing football being played again with the President’s Cup and then when the SSE Airtricity Premier Division kicks-off on March 19th with the SSE Airtricity First Division and SSE Airtricity Women’s National League commencing a week later. We will also of course see the return of Stephen Kenny’s Senior Men’s team as they embark on their FIFA World Cup 2022 qualification campaign at the end of March while Jim Crawford’s U21 Men’s team are also pencilled in for games that month.
“This return to senior football can act as a yardstick for the return at all levels of the game. We fully understand our responsibilities here, both to our players and the wider support staff and we have worked hard to improve our COVID-19 protocols from our many learnings in 2020 to produce new and refined versions for the 2021 LOI season and for the international teams. I was pleased to take part in very productive and collaborative sessions with the Club medical teams and then with the Club managers in the two meetings over the weekend where the new protocols were warmly embraced.
“Delivering a safe and controlled environment for football during the pandemic is obviously key and another signal to the Government that we can play football in a safe and controlled way. But we recognise this return to play cannot be reflected in the grassroots game at this time and indeed we are working with all of our affiliates on an ongoing basis to review which of our upcoming events and programmes could be played out safely and which may need to be postponed, moved online or even cancelled.”
Together with Medical Director Dr Alan Byrne, a member of the Expert Medical Group, the Association is working with affiliates on identifying the key mental health areas that need to be addressed across the sport during this Level 5 lockdown.
CEO Hill continued: “We also recognise the physical, mental and societal issues that our wider communities are facing during this prolonged and enforced break from the game and these are firmly at the heart of our ongoing discussions with Government which are also reflecting the very real financial impact to grassroot clubs and Leagues and how we can address these moving forward as well as other key areas of the game.
“We were grateful for the support received from Government in 2020 across all facets of our game and we are engaged with them already on the issue of support in 2021 for the Association, for grassroots clubs and for the League of Ireland. These discussions are ongoing and we thank Government for their support of our game, past, present and future.
“In my letter today, I have again told our members that they deserve great credit for the manner in which they have responded to this pandemic and we take great pride in how Irish football has dealt with COVID-19 all across the country.
“Our game has played its part in the community fight against COVID-19. Our members have been committed to the FAI Protocols and the Government guidelines and they continue to respect those rules as they sit out this current lockdown. They are patient and they will need to remain patient.
“We will again thank Government for their support and the work of all their agencies when we next meet, we will commit fully to their guidelines and we will confirm that we want football back as soon as we can. I can promise all our stakeholders that as soon as we get the green light, they will be back on the pitch.”