Dundalk FC chairman Bill Hulsizer has confirmed that the club have made a submission to UEFA to move their Europa League group stage matches to Windsor Park in Belfast after accusing the IRFU of having “bad blood” with the SSE Airtricity League champions.
Filippo Giovagnoli’s side had previously announced that they would host all of their Group B matches in the Aviva Stadium where they beat Faroese champions KÍ Klaksvik 3-1 at the start of the month in a play-off.
However, the Lilywhites announced on Thursday that their opening match against Molde FK on October 22nd would now take place in Tallaght Stadium as the Aviva was unavailable.
It had been expected that the remaining group games at home to Rapid Wien on November 23rd and Arsenal on December 10th would take place at the Dublin 4 venue but news emerged over the weekend that Dundalk were now looking at Windsor Park as an alternative for all three matches.
The reason given for the Aviva Stadium being unavailable for the Molde tie on October 22nd is that the IRFU needed it for kicking practice ahead of Ireland’s Six Nations clash with Italy two days later.
However, Hulsizer believes comments he made about the IRFU’s management of the Aviva last month are the real reason why Dundalk were forced to look elsewhere to host the Norwegians.
“It is an underused stadium that is losing money every year,” Hulsizer insisted, in a repeat of his previous comments about the Aviva.
“I think what the IRFU are doing is saying we don’t like what you said but if it’s the truth then change it and move on.”
Dundalk’s American owners PEAK6 had been linked with trying to buy out the FAI’s stake in the old Lansdowne Road but Hulsizer, not for the first time, said they were only ever looking to manage the ground.
“We have never tried to own the Aviva Stadium. We have no interest in owning the Aviva Stadium. Would we try to manage it and stop the Irish people from having to pay for it? Well we said we would and I don’t mean me or Dundalk. These are professional stadium people, an investment group who have worldwide representation and experience but I can’t force the Irish people or the Irish government to say here’s a chance to save money.
“Instead they’re saying they’d rather live off the Government. That’s difficult for me to accept.”
Hulsizer, the father of PEAK6 founder Matt, also absolved the FAI from any blame in relation to having to move the Molde game out of the Aviva, which they were set to pay in the region of €30,000 per game to use.
“The FAI have not been uncooperative,” he said.
“The only mistake they made when we were establishing the dates was they assumed they had a partner in the IRFU, not an enemy, but they’ve worked hand in hand with us to get this thing over the line. It’s important for them as well but the only mistake they made was saying okay to us.
“Obviously there is bad blood that will continue because the IRFU is happy to take their money from the Government.”
Florida-based Hulsizer admitted he knew little about rugby as a sport but said he couldn’t understand how an organisation which has gone on public record as losing money could turn down rent.
“I’m perplexed by their decision but also I don’t know anything about rugby,” he said.
“Maybe this kicking practice that they’re taking the stadium for is absolutely essential to the contest but I can’t figure out the logic to it. If someone from rugby wants to inform me the logic then I don’t want to mess up their international game.
“They’re begging for money, I didn’t make that up, I saw that in the newspaper, so I can’t see how they are turning business away.”
Hulsizer estimated it would cost Dundalk in the region of €50,000 extra to host the Molde game in Tallaght before moving back to the Aviva for the matches with Rapid Wien next month and Arsenal in December.
“We decided to pay extra for the Aviva. It costs more to rent the Aviva but the bottom line Tallaght costs more than the Aviva when you take into account all the add-ons.
“Do you really want to host Arsenal in Ireland in Tallaght Stadium and broadcast it to the world? We have one of the best stadiums around. The Aviva Stadium is gorgeous and we’re trying to promote Irish football, not just Dundalk, by playing there. Why wouldn’t we want to put our best foot forward to the world?
“The bottom line is us having to play in two stadiums costs us about €50,000 extra because the stadiums have to be prepared for UEFA and we pay to prepare them at our expense. So if we have to prepare two stadiums instead of one that means you’ve got double the expense.
“Tallaght is a lot less ready for what UEFA need than the Aviva. Make no mistake this is about money. If they really don’t want us and sport in Ireland doesn’t want us that’s okay.”
Chicago-based PEAK6 announced in September that they were creating 160 jobs at a new centre of excellence in Belfast and Hulsizer says it was one of these hires who suggested using Windsor Park as an alternative.
“We have a presence in Belfast now and the manager of our data business said he knew the boss of the IFA so he has called him on our behalf.
“If we can save €50,000 and maybe buy one defender next year or a goalie or a forward with that €50,000 then that’s better for everybody.”
Given UEFA guidelines on match scheduling favour clubs playing all matches at the one venue and preferably “within the territory of its association”, Dundalk face an uphill battle to have their games in Windsor Park but it is one that Hulsizer is determined to engage in.
“The odds of us going to Windsor Park are remote but the odds of us beating Arsenal are remote but we’re going to play them anyway,” said the 77-year-old.
“We’ll need to know this week though, that’s for sure.
“Firstly Windsor Park needs to confirm it’s available so that we’re not conflicting with something that they have scheduled. Then UEFA has to say we can play in another jurisdiction but it’s a venue that is closer to Dundalk than the Aviva or Tallaght.
“We’re also bringing an English team from the UK into the UK so there’s logic to that I think.
“I want to get it done as fast as possible because it’s unfair to my staff otherwise because there is loads of work to be done to host one of these games. It’s not just a case of opening the gates and letting the teams in.
“We’ll get it resolved the best way possible but for example we need to have digital signage at the games. There is none in Tallaght so we have to install it temporarily. I don’t know the cost of that but I know we have to do it. I also know renting two stadiums is more expensive than one. Playing at the Europa League level is not just about being a Category 4 stadium, it’s a lot more.”
The IRFU said in response: “The IRFU understands that it would have been operationally impossible for the Aviva Stadium to facilitate a short notice request from Dundalk Football Club to hold a Europa League fixture just two days before the rescheduled Ireland v Italy Six Nations match.
“The exceptional grounds people and operations teams at the Aviva Stadium were presented the impossible task of having to repeatedly replace posts, clean all facilities multiple times, and crucially, prepare, paint, repair, cut and repaint the playing surface four times between Wednesday, when pre-match football practice would have taken place, to Saturday, for the pre-booked rugby fixture. The ask to effectively repurpose the surface four times in three days was impossible to deliver.
“The IRFU have been disappointed to see misleading comments on this matter in recent days.”