Parents' fury over cancelled Real Madrid trip - 'We just want our money back'
Police launch probe as families lose thousands on cancelled kids' football trip
Police are investigating after a number of Northern Ireland families paid out thousands of pounds for a dream kids football trip to Madrid which did not go ahead.
Furious parents now fear they have lost their money after the star-studded visit to the Real Madrid football club fell apart just days before they were due to set off.
One father told how he took on extra work to pay for the once-in-a-lifetime trip and his son had now been left devastated. The total amount paid out is believed to run into tens of thousands of pounds.
The holiday was organised by Belfast man Austin Speight who is a franchisee of the worldwide Coever Coaching brand and ran Coever Ulster.
But it was cancelled after Mr Speight went missing from his home in Blackrock village in Co Louth last month. Following a Garda hunt he turned up safe and well days later.
The Belfast Telegraph tried to contact Mr Speight - who is based in Dundalk - yesterday by telephone and by email but he did not respond.
But police have confirmed to the Belfast Telegraph that they are investigating the collapse of the trip.
Detective Inspector Richard Thornton said: "Detectives from Belfast Reactive and Organised Crime are investigating reports of financial transactions relating to the provision of a football coaching trip. The investigation is at an early stage."
Father-of-two Martin Cushnahan said the trip to Madrid had been a Christmas present for his 11-year-old son James who loves Real Madrid and its star players.
He took on extra work on the Isle of Man to pay for his family to go to Spain, which was to double as their summer holiday.
In total he paid out £1,800 and said his son is devastated.
"James plays for Greenisland but has taken part in Coever Coaching sessions for around a year-and-a-half," he said.
"Last October we went to Benfica with Coever which was great, we had no reason not worry about the Real Madrid trip.
"On Monday the week before we were due to go, we got an email to say there would be a meeting at Stormont Pavilion to give us flight details and instructions about what to pack. But then we got an email the following Thursday from Austin's wife saying he had taken sick and that the trip may not go ahead."
The following day Mr Speight disappeared from his home in Dundalk and a Garda search was organised to find him.
Mr Cushnahan has not heard from either Mr Speight or his wife since, and fears he has lost his £1,800. "We are all shocked, it was his Christmas present," he said. "I had to do something instead for my kids so I found a cheap house to rent in Connemara for a week and we went there instead, just to get away, because Madrid was also meant to be our summer holiday.
"I am well out of pocket. It was only because I had been working away on the Isle of Man that I had enough money for it. But it was all for nothing, it's all gone now."
Another father, who is from east Belfast, paid £950 for his seven-year-old son to go to Madrid along with his grandad. He said he was shocked by what had happened.
"The thing is, Austin is a fantastic coach," he said.
"But I was emailing him over and over again trying to get flight details, then I got an email saying that he was in hospital. I knew then that the trip wasn't going ahead but I emailed again, I just wanted it in writing.
"Everyone has been left really disappointed. This was to be my son's holiday. I just want my money back now."
Meanwhile a local football club said they had also paid Mr Speight almost £10,000 for a trip to Amsterdam in November.
Glenavy Youth chairman Paul Harden said they are determined the trip will still go ahead and have organised a intensive round of fundraising events to pay for it.
In a statement, Sportsmethod Ltd - the licensor of Coerver Coaching - said they are working with the PSNI.
"Sportsmethod Ltd is the licensor of Coerver Coaching, a global football coaching programme established in 1984 in London," a spokesman said.
"There are currently over 20 independently operated licensees of Sportsmethod Ltd across the UK and Europe.
"Sportsmethod (NI) Ltd, of which Austin Speight is a director, has held the licence to run Coerver Coaching programmes in Northern Ireland since 2014.
"Sportsmethod Ltd was made aware of Mr Speight's disappearance on Sunday, August 21 and his safe return on Wednesday, August 24.
"During this period and to date, Sportsmethod Ltd has been in close contact with the PSNI to establish the facts behind this unfortunate situation. Sportsmethod Ltd has also been in regular communication with the parents, players and clubs impacted by the situation.
"Sportsmethod Ltd fully appreciates the disappointment and frustration experienced by the families affected.
"Since Mr Speight's Sportsmethod (NI) Ltd has been run as a separate company, Sportsmethod Ltd is currently seeking more information about its operations before considering how to help find a satisfactory resolution."