Northern Ireland football’s dream of a new 20,000 all-seater national stadium has moved closer to reality, the Belfast Telegraph can today reveal.
A £30million, newly-rebuilt Windsor Park is set to get the go-ahead next month following the removal by owners Linfield of the major stumbling block.
That is the Irish League champions’ controversial 100-year rental arrangement with the Irish Football Association for use of their stadium for international games.
Talks on Monday between Linfield and Irish FA chiefs reached agreement in principle on a new deal to replace the current contract, worth up to £600,000 a year to the Blues.
It will see Linfield become stakeholders in a new, 30-year, stadium management partnership with the IFA and backed by Government funding.
The management company would take over responsibility for the upkeep of the ground, currently undertaken by Linfield.
The Blues would then be paid a reduced rental by the IFA for hosting international games, still in the region of £250,000 but without the burden of maintenance costs.
Linfield members still have to give their consent to the deal brokered by their board.
But it does seem a win-win outcome all round with Linfield financially sasisfied and a complete revamp of Windsor Park, securing the future of Northern Ireland football.
This week’s breakthrough represents a long overdue step forward after years of wrangling during which Windsor has become seriously rundown to a current Health and Safety imposed capacity of just 8,000 spectators.
The old Linfield-IFA deal, still with 78 years to run, has been a major impediment in negotiations to have Windsor upgraded.
Rival clubs have also viewed the annual windfall to the Blues from 15 per cent of international revenues as an unfair advantage in competing for players.
But the champions have been negotiating from a position of strength and were only going to budge when the terms of the redrawn deal were right for them.
They will now recommend acceptance of the deal by their members and if that happens, IFA chiefs will then move to resolve other issues on an agreed timetable, leading to a joint announcement next month and work commencing next year.
These include whether Northern Ireland and Linfield can continue to play at Windsor during the 18 month construction period.
Remedial work has already begun just to keep the gates open for the new international campaign next season.
Repairs are underway on the North Stand, owned by the Irish FA, steps are being taken to improve viewing from the lower deck while plans are in place to install temporary seating at the Railway Stand end.
The elephant in the room, certainly as far as the IFA are concerned, is the soon to be published Government-ordered Sport NI investigation into the sacking of former Chief Executive Howard Wells and his subsequent £500,000 unfair dismissal settlement.
That is expected to be extremely critical of newly re-elected and endorsed President Raymond Kennedy and his No2 David Martin for their arbitary axing of Wells, against legal advice, exposing the IFA, and football, to that half million loss.
Football is unlikely to be penalised by any withholding of Government funding, ringfenced and available for the stadium project ahead of planned public spending cuts. But strict checks and balances are certain to be imposed in a mark of Government concern at committing a vast sum of public money to a body so reckless with its’ own.