Kingspan could host Euro 2016 game against Romania

Safety fears over West Stand
Safety fears over West Stand

The home of Ulster Rugby could become the saviour of the international football team if a damaged stand at Windsor Park can’t be passed as safe before June 13.

The venue for Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualifying group match against Romania was immediately thrown into doubt when structural damage to the West Stand was noticed on Tuesday.

With half of the national stadium already closed due to major renovations, the Kingspan at Ravenhill - approved as a suitable European football venue by Eufa last summer - is emerging as the most likely alternative to host the top of Group F clash in June,

Irish Football Association (IFA) officials met on Wednesday to discuss the Windsor Park difficulties but no announcement on either domestic or international fixtures is expected before this afternoon.

A structural engineer’s report on the 5,000-seat stand was commissioned on Tuesday but, as of Wednesday night, was still being compiled.

On Sunday it was filled to capacity for Northern Ireland’s 2-1 win over Finland.

Initially the visible damage was limited to a large crack in a side wall of the stand, but by Wednesday photographs showed that a section of a supporting wall has now collapsed.

The first major decision for football authorities is what to do about Linfield’s scheduled home game against league leaders Crusaders on Saturday. Windsor Park is also due to host the Irish Cup final between Glentoran and Portadown on May 2.

Gary McAllister of the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs (AONISC) said the problems with the stand had come at the worst possible time, with the team enjoying its best ever start to a major tournament qualifying campaign.

Stressing that speculation on alternative venues was “hypothetical” pending the outcome of the engineer’s report, Mr McAllister said the Kingspan or a football stadium in south west Scotland could be possible alternatives to playing a reduced capacity Windsor Park.

He said the IFA had agreed a meeting with the AONISC but that it was unlikely to take place until the engineer’s report was available.

“We want the IFA to be in an informed position when they meet us. We would much rather the IFA was able to answer any questions we may have,” he added.

A Windsor Park source said the affected grandstand was originally constructed using a number of separate sections, so there was still a chance the problem could be limited to a small area and easier rectified than first thought.

However, he said, the authorities would be taking no chances with spectator safety despite the pressure to resolve the issue quickly.

The ongoing building programme on the south Belfast site involves excavations directly behind the West Stand - known to Linfield fans as the Kop - but it is not yet known if that construction activity is linked to the possible subsidence.

Work on the redevelopment programme at Windsor Park began in May 2014 and was due to be completed in October this year.

As well as the demolition of the old South Stand, the East Stand (Railway Stand) has been rebuilt to include modern spectator and media facilities.

The overall project includes a new-build leisure complex to replace the adjacent Olympia Leisure Centre.

The refurbished stadium will have an 18,000-plus seat capacity compared to the previous 13,000.