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Irish FA daring to dream once again

National Training Centre and stadia upgrades are in new five-year strategy

By Graham Luney

The Irish Football Association are attempting to make hay while the sun shines and you can't fault them for that.

Windsor Park - or the National Football Stadium if you prefer - is looking pretty, the Northern Ireland senior side under Michael O'Neill's shrewd management is flying, and the domestic game, while far from perfect, is moving in the right direction.

The Irish FA feel they should now reach for the stars, and yesterday they outlined a new five-year strategy aimed at "promoting, fostering and developing football for all".

"Today, football in Northern Ireland is on a high," said Irish FA president David Martin, and that was an understatement given some of the lean years we have soldiered through since the wonderful 1980s.

But now our game is on the crest of a wave, and even qualification for the World Cup finals in Russia next year seems within reach.

The Irish FA are entitled to set ambitious targets and challenges but, of course, money makes the world go round too, and if they could pocket £10million by making it to a World Cup for the first time in 32 years, then their chances of successfully implementing their 2017-2022 strategy will increase dramatically.

And while IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson was probably tempted to state that a 'strong and stable' Government helps, he did say: "We need our Government partners to step up on this one."

Central to the Association's plans is a new National Training Centre and the redevelopment of stadia in Northern Ireland. Windsor Park is a shiny example of what money can buy, thanks to £31million from the Northern Ireland Executive.

Next on the wishlist is £36million from the Department of Communities - investment in the game which is badly needed.

All clubs wouldn't say no to a lick of paint but, across the city from Windsor, The Oval needs to be demolished and space created for a new home for Glentoran.

The strategy states: "We will deliver several major

stadia improvements. These will be significant, high profile redevelopments of NIFL Premiership grounds."

Better stadia will improve the Irish FA's chances of bringing further Uefa tournaments to the province, another key goal of the Association.

Whether there is any huge appetite for summer football in Northern Ireland is a matter of debate, but the Irish FA have placed a signpost pointing in that direction by promising to provide help for senior clubs in European competition by backing a "tweaking of the season".

Clubs will play in May and June, leaving them in better shape to advance on the continent and therefore pocket more funds from Uefa.

The Irish FA want NIFL Premiership clubs to break the top 40 in Uefa co-efficient ranking - NIFL are 47th out of 54 - and further assistance will be provided to clubs through coaching clinics led by international managers and staff.

When the Association's last strategy was launched in November 2013 at Stormont, called 'We're Not Brazil We're Northern Ireland', among the stated aims was to qualify for a major tournament and deliver a National Stadium.

Fast forward to today and they are ahead of schedule and feeling confident. Yet, just as we know O'Neill won't be Northern Ireland boss forever, the good times won't last. But the Irish FA have shown that it's perfectly reasonable to dream big.

Noble ideas, but when will we see the investment needed for a National Training Centre and ground improvements?

"The first thing is we need a Northern Ireland Executive to kick that off," said Nelson.

"We have been speaking to the predecessor organisation DCAL and the current one, the Department for Communities, over the past five years on this, and I remain confident that the funding should be there to allow us to rebuild the football estate.

"Within that, a National Training Centre is one of our highest priorities but we haven't selected a place yet as we need to wait until the funding is secure.

"As we go around Europe we see some of the quality training centres that other countries have. We take ideas from those and once we can secure funding with our partners in Government we will get on with that project.

"The cost of it depends on who the partners are but we are confident we can deliver something that will work and we will be proud of like the National Stadium."

And can NIFL become a top 40 hit in Europe, with a club reaching the qualifying stages of the Europa League or Champions League? Just what is the European mindset of our clubs, and will it change?

"We have consulted quite widely, and NIFL will explore the details, but we have put it in our headline, 'Break the Top 40', and the reason we put it that way is that it is probably the biggest single thing we could do to help fund NIFL clubs," added Nelson.

Another interesting proposal is a Performance Academy for players aged 16 to 23 where players can enhance their fitness, strength and conditioning in "an elite environment with a strong education element".

On the coaching clinics, Nelson added: "We have some excellent full-time coaches that have European experience so let's utilise it."

If the Irish FA's new strategy proves to be as successful as the last one, then maybe we won't be Northern Ireland anymore - we'll be Brazil.

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