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Emotional farewell as IFA setting sail for new pastures

By Steven Beacom

Published 29/01/2016

Up for sale: The Irish FA will say goodbye to their 20 Windsor Avenue base and move to Windsor Park
Up for sale: The Irish FA will say goodbye to their 20 Windsor Avenue base and move to Windsor Park

It's the end of an era today with Irish Football Association staff leaving 20 Windsor Avenue in Belfast behind before Monday's move into new offices at Windsor Park.

The Windsor Avenue building, with a historic link to the Titanic, has been home to the IFA for 56 years.

In that time the biggest decisions relating to Northern Ireland football, from appointing international managers to controversially cancelling an Irish Cup final, have been taken inside the boardroom of the premises, purchased by the IFA for £10,000 in 1960.

The property, where Titanic designer Thomas Andrews lived in the early part of the 20th century, is now on the market for £1.1 million.

Around 120 staff, in various fields such as administration and coaching, work for the IFA. It's a far cry from when the longest serving member of staff, William Campbell, Head of the Chief Executive's office, started in 1983.

He recalls: "We only had a staff of 10 back then. My first role at the IFA was as an Administration Officer under Billy Drennan before David Bowen came in as General Secretary some months later.

"Roy Millar was our only football technician in his role as Director of Football.

"Now we have a staff of 120 and 60 to 70 of them are coaches in one discipline or another.

"Up to the mid-90s we only had a staff of 15. The big explosion in numbers has only come in the last 10 years.

"It is a lovely building but impractical for the modern way of working. We are moving to a brand new stadium, which is an architectural gem.. The offices look great and it is exciting for all the staff to be moving into our new premises together.

"Of course there will be emotions for staff who have been here for a long time in moving on but the good thing is while our workplace may change the people will stay the same.

"Yes, it may be sad leaving 20 Windsor Avenue, but ultimately it won't make a button of difference to what we do.

"My own personal memories of Windsor Avenue are all good. I came in in 1983. In those days you entered through the old front door, and not at the side like you do now, and it was like going into a church with the stained glassed window at the top of the stairs.

"When I started out I was taught how to use a Telex machine for international clearances. In the early 90s there was great excitement when we brought in a fax machine. Now everything is computerised with emails though we still have the fax machine for transfer forms being sent in ahead of deadlines," added Campbell, who was interviewed for his first IFA post by the legendary Harry Cavan, an IFA President and Fifa Vice-President.

Pictures of all the IFA Presidents, the original Irish Cup from 1881 and other historic items of note are likely to end up at the new Windsor Park, which the IFA prefer to call the National Stadium.

The old British Championship trophy, which is currently on loan to the Football Museum in Manchester will also be based at the new Windsor.

Northern Ireland were the last winners of the British Championship trophy in 1984 before the home international series was abolished.

In 1960 the IFA moved from property in Waring Street in Belfast to the building they are vacating today. Football's bigwigs or the 'suits' as they later became known thought long and hard before buying what would become the Association's home for almost six decades.

"It is interesting that in 1960 in IFA minutes it says that they agonised over buying the property for £10,000," says Campbell, who has great knowledge of the building's history.

"Now it is being sold for over a million. At the height of the property boom a property developer actually offered a lot more than that for it.

"There is interest in the building with one or two potential purchasers. There is a great deal of prestige attached to 20 Windsor Avenue and we have been good tenants since buying it in 1960. We hope whoever buys it looks after it." One of the last big decisions taken inside what became known as Northern Ireland's football headquarters, was to extend the contract of the country's manager Michael O'Neill in 2013.

There were some key figures in the IFA who felt O'Neill's time was up after a poor World Cup qualifying campaign, but President Jim Shaw led the call for the former Northern Ireland midfielder to stay on.

It was one of the shrewdest moves ever with O'Neill inspiring his players to qualify as group winners for the Euro 2016 finals. This year will be the first time Northern Ireland have played in the European Championships and it will be the nation's first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup. There will be the glory, the joy and an unforgettable experience for manager, players and fans and £8 million coming into the IFA.

Bryan Hamilton will go down as the last Northern Ireland manager sacked by the IFA in the Windsor Avenue boardroom.

That was not necessarily a major surprise, though when the IFA decided to cancel the 1999 Irish Cup final between Cliftonville and Portadown it caused shockwaves across club football here.

The IFA felt they had no other choice after it was discovered that Cliftonville had fielded the ineligible Simon Gribben in their semi-final victory over Linfield.

A whole lot of history will be left behind at Windsor Avenue. A new era for the IFA, and its staff led by Chief Executive Patrick Nelson, begins on Monday at Windsor Park.

Belfast Telegraph

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