Irish Cup final will see fans return to a UK soccer stadiumThe Associated Press — By ROB HARRIS - AP Global Soccer Writer
Unable to drink beer but back chanting in a stadium again, supporters will attend competitive soccer in Britain on Friday for the first time since the country's coronavirus lockdown four months ago.
In a pilot event for the planned widespread return of supporters, 500 will be allowed into the Irish Cup final at 18,500-capacity Windsor Park in Belfast, split between finalists Ballymena United and Glentoran.
“We’re a bit of a pioneer here in bringing some fans back into live sport,” Irish FA chief executive Patrick Nelson told The Associated Press from the Northern Ireland capital. “It’s up to us as the venue operator to make sure that everything is done safely and secure and we think that’s a good number to start off with."
Northern Ireland is ahead of the rest of the U.K. as the pandmeic lockdown restrictions are eased in the national sport. Over in London on Saturday, England's FA Cup final will be played without any spectators at Wembley, just like the Premier League concluded in empty stadiums following a 100-day shutdown.
The British government envisages the widespread return of fans to football — and other sports — from October. Trials began only over the last week, with a limited number of spectators at cricket and horse racing social distancing to limit the risk of being infected with COVID-19.
An official from Britain's Sports Grounds Safety Authority will be in Belfast for the final, which was originally scheduled to be played in May, to pick up tips on how raucous fans can safely sit at stadiums.
There will be temperature checks on entry for supporters and they will be restricted to sitting behind the goals. The need for players to social distance means corporate lounges will be used to change in, and team talks will take place on the field.
“There’s a lot of restrictions," Nelson said. "It is, as they say, the new normal for now. And we’ll see how it goes on Friday.”
Although the Irish Cup is sponsored by a lager, it won't be available to fans.
“It’s going to be dry," Nelson said. "Because it’s the Sadler’s Peaky Blinder Irish Cup, we’ll certainly be thinking about pints as we go through it.”
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