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Page last updated at 17:47 GMT, Friday, 8 August 2008 18:47 UK

Matches off after referees strike

Referee David Malcolm
David Malcolm believes problems with refereeing have been ignored

Last-ditch talks have failed to prevent the opening games of the JJB Sports Premiership season being called off because of a strike by referees.

A statement from Irish League referees said they were "withdrawing their services with immediate effect for an indefinite period" over a pay dispute.

Referees are believed to want their match fee increased from 70 to 120.

The IFA hope that Premiership and IFA Championship games planned for Saturday can be played on Tuesday night.

Irish Football Association chief executive Howard Wells said that the crisis "had not just suddenly emerged".

"We thought we were closer together in terms of a solution than we are.

"Obviously, we have reached an impasse but it is only as impasse.

"I think there is a spirit and an intention on all sides to resolve this."

Thursday night's announcement of the strike came after a meeting between representatives of the IFA and local referees, followed by two hours of discussions among local referees.

The strike will affect both Premiership and Championship matches.

The referees say they will continue to withdraw their services "until the situation is resolved and our grievances are addressed".

Both meetings took place on Thursday night, just two days before the IFA's new flagship top-tier division was due to start.

There is a serious problem in refereeing and it has been ignored for too long
David Malcolm

Referees also want assistants appointed for IFA Championship fixtures.

Referees' representative David Malcolm had warned they would withdraw their availability if their demands were not met.

"We are the poor relations of Europe and after four years of delays the Irish FA has to deal with this and deal with it today," Malcolm had told BBC Sport.

"Outside of the Welsh, we are the worst paid and worst looked after referees across Europe, and that includes Belarus and Albania.

"But I would be amazed if money was the thing holding this up.

"We are looking at the more fundamental role of referees in the local game and the respect in which they are held.

"There is a serious problem in refereeing and it has been ignored for too long."

The strike by referees will inevitably cause chaos to the fixture schedule and embarrass the IFA just days after they unveiled their new sponsor and an advertising campaign to increase attendances.

It is a further blow to the new 12-team set-up, coming after one of Northern Ireland's top clubs, Portadown, was excluded from the Premiership over an administrative mistake.

The Ports had their application rejected because it was submitted less than half an hour after the stipulated deadline.

Portadown are now playing in the Championship and have won their opening matches 7-0 and 5-1.

Referees are unhappy that they are being asked to officiate at Championship games without proper assistants.

Instead they have to rely on linesmen from the participating teams.

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