New stadium at Maze never had a sporting chance
To some the Maze was the obvious site for a sports stadium.
Notice I do not say ‘national' stadium. We northern provincials are not a ‘nation' — and I am not a great fan of Northern Ireland nationalism, at least not until the day this disputed territory is obliged to go for the last resort and opt for independence. But, as I say, the Maze was the obvious place — to some. It had already been flattened for the wartime RAF, saving a great deal of money. It now happens to be near the M1 making access, in theory, easier. Lastly, it is reasonably central for the greater number of citizens in Northern Ireland.
But was it a little too obvious? The Maze has a past and in these parts memories are long. Whoever first proposed it — some Northern Ireland Office pundit long gone on to other things? — may have been lacking a little in appreciation of the spurs which guide the local psyche.
I was nervous of it from the first mention because I sensed that it had been a political decision. It is not always possible to distance our sport from politics. Fervour thrives in the grandstand. But in sport we should seek, where possible, to have the two keep their distance.
I was also nervous of the project's prospects because the sports public was so sharply divided about it.
It is the punters who pay the piper, so if they are unhappy and do not come, a new stadium at the Maze could be a financial disaster. In any case, fancy — if they did come— 35,000 of them seeking to make their way home along a two-lane M1! A 10-mile snarl-up would be the result. In that event, would they want to come back?
Sport is a community thing. That is why important sports grounds — Windsor Park, Casement Park, Ravenhill, Croke Park, Lansdowne Road, Wembley, Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium, Wimbledon — are focal community points, built within easy reach of the centre of big cities.
Many thousands of the people who flock to them arrive on foot. Near most are hostelries within which the aficionados gather before and after the match: first to argue the toss, afterwards in triumph following more goal-scoring heroics by David Healy (left) — or to drown their sorrows.
A University of Ulster working party 18 months ago submitted to Belfast City Council a useful report on the alternative options. After perusing the latest international research, they came down in favour of a city-centre site which could also be used for conferences and concerts, an important potential source of additional revenue.
For all these reasons the custom worldwide is not to build a big sports stadium in the middle of the countryside on a site like the Maze.
Lansdowne Road is being rebuilt on its present site; similarly Wembley and Twickenham. The Maze, though, is the focal point of absolutely nothing. Its associations of the immediate past are baleful and have no part in what sport should be about. But it would provide good grazing for the heifers of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society which could turn it into a fine showground.
The University of Ulster report favoured building the stadium on the site of the former Maysfield Leisure Centre at Albert Bridge in Belfast.
But there is also the expansive new Titanic Quarter in Belfast harbour or space on reclaimed land on the north Belfast foreshore — or even in Ormeau Park. Let no one pretend there are not useful potential sites in the city.
Finally, I hate to say it, but there is also the small matter of the money. The grandiose plan for a new stadium was mooted long before we entered the world of disgraced bankers, dodgy chancellors and evasive prime ministers.
That was the world of easy money, guaranteed bonuses for all in the City and borrowing dictated from Number Ten like there was no tomorrow.
If we were to build a stadium soon, could we pay? I was in one of our newest hospitals last week. I saw two wards devoid of beds, sundry furniture strewn around. I assumed that the Trust has not the funds to pay the staff needed to bring those wards into use, thus cutting the waiting list of patients. In its A and E, out-patients, according to a placard on the wall, were having to wait two and a half hours to see a hard-worked doctor.
So, more and more, we live in a world of urgently competing demands. Finance officials at Stormont have warned there is a risk that the £80m predicated for the proposed stadium is an underestimate. That figure is now almost certainly out of date. In fact, it may be time to cut our coat and turn the mind to upgrading existing grounds.
The problem of Windsor Park, of course, has an obvious solution. If the FAI and the IFA were one body like the IRFU, all-Ireland soccer internationals could be played grandly at Croke Park.