Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Mo Mowlam called it right all along - we missed out on young talent playing for Northern Ireland

Missed chance: Manchester United players in action at Windsor Park during Harry Gregg's testimonial last year. Had things turned out differently, United could have been playing Premier League games in Belfast
Missed chance: Manchester United players in action at Windsor Park during Harry Gregg's testimonial last year. Had things turned out differently, United could have been playing Premier League games in Belfast

Picture the scene. State of the art stadium in Belfast. Premier League football being played. Belfast Dons v Manchester United.

Dream on, you say. It may seem impossible to comprehend now, but this could have been for real.

Let's go back to the summer of 1998, when the World Cup in France was dominating our lives and the back page of this newspaper. It was then that a leaked government letter fell into my lap.

The letter was from the Northern Ireland Secretary of State at that time, Mo Mowlam, to Prime Minister Tony Blair and Sports Minister Tony Banks.

It read: "I am writing to you concerning a proposal, which is being developed to build a new international sports stadium in Belfast and to attract a Premier League football club as the anchor tenant."

Talk about the first paragraph grabbing your attention.

The letter continued: "You will already know something of this from the Parliamentary Question tabled by Keith Simpson earlier this year, which associated Wimbledon FC with the proposal.

"Since then, further developmental work has been undertaken by a private sector consortium, who expect to be in a position to finalise their proposal over the next three to four weeks.

"There remains significant hurdles to be overcome, but a successful outcome would offer significant benefits to Northern Ireland in terms of capital investment by the private sector, positive impact on its international image and opportunity for substantial cross-community participation."

A Premier League club coming to Belfast! Waow!

We put the story on the front and back pages of the Belfast Telegraph the next day.

It was huge. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie (pictured).

The headline read IFA VERSUS MOWLAM because obviously I sought reaction from the powers that be at Windsor Avenue.

They were not amused. IFA General Secretary David Bowen stated: "We are not interested in Wimbledon FC playing in Belfast every other week. Our mandate is to promote the game in Northern Ireland at all levels and having an English Premier team here would not do that.

"I am disappointed with the government attitude over this."

That was a kick in the teeth for Mowlam, the government and those private investors because to go ahead the project required the support of the IFA.

The case was to close months later.

Without backing from the football authorities here, Northern Ireland was no longer an option.

Wimbledon FC, without a home of their own, re-located to Milton Keynes in September 2003 and went into administration before being re-named Remember this? Wimbledon's proposed move to Northern Ireland made headlines on the front and back pages of local papers Milton Keynes Dons, almost exactly six years after I had broken the story about Mo's desire for them to come to Belfast.

By then they were a League One side.

They still are today, playing in a new 22,000 all seater stadium, with Northern Ireland defender Lee Hodson a regular for them.

In 1998 I agreed with David Bowen and all the other big hitters at the IFA.

I wanted to protect the Irish League from a Premier League club coming in and taking fans from teams like Linfield, Glentoran, Cliftonville and Crusaders and potentially killing off the local game.

There was also the distinct possibility that while a Belfast Dons outfit might be popular when the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool were in town, what would happen to crowd figures if they got relegated, as turned out to be the case, and they ended up hosting teams such as Bury and Bournemouth?

A virtually empty stadium, that's what.

I look back now though and think I was wrong, the IFA were wrong and all those who railroaded against it were wrong.

I asked Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill about it a while back and his take was that it was "an interesting idea".

Had it been developed, the club would obviously have set up an Academy and given the most gifted youngsters here professional training and a chance to make the grade.

Over the past 15 years, not enough of our kids have been granted an opportunity across the water, and those who have often felt homesick and are left lagging behind youngsters from other nations and come home disillusioned with the game.

Belfast Dons would have been on our doorstep and surely would have brought talented young players through their system, be they from Fermanagh or Down, thereby providing more options for the Northern Ireland team.

And boy do we need them.

Unfortunately we missed the boat.

We should have listened to Mo Mowlam.

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