Paul Givan: New Windsor is a jewel that'll attract families and females
The new-look 18,500-capacity Windsor Park is now a 'jewel in the crown of the sporting infrastructure of Northern Ireland', says Minister for Communities Paul Givan.
The Lagan Valley politician is convinced the refurbishment of the stadium, largely funded by government money, will bring more families and females to international and domestic fixtures in the future.
"Having the stadium completed in 2016 was very important," stated the DUP man.
"I was there for the official opening and the atmosphere in the stadium was fantastic. I believe The National Stadium at Windsor Park is a real jewel in the crown of the sporting infrastructure of Northern Ireland.
"It is something the fans needed and something we needed in terms of broadening the fan base and bringing more families and females to games. Now we are seeing a greater representation of the demographic of Northern Ireland going to matches."
The opening of the 'new' Windsor was overshadowed when the Irish FA were heavily criticised for the absentees on their guestlist to celebrate the occasion.
The IFA brought a host of Northern Ireland stars from sport, music and television, including Team GB Paralympic gold medal winners Bethany Firth and Kelly Gallagher, to parade around the ground ahead of the World Cup qualifier in October against San Marino, but were deemed to have made a glaring error by not inviting Team Ireland Paralympian heroes Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop, who aired their views about the decision.
Givan said: "In hindsight the IFA said it was an oversight and made the offer for them to come to games after that. I think it was unfortunate that situation became part of the story.
"Michael and Jason felt as athletes they should have been there. From a personal point of view had I been them I think I would have gone privately to the IFA as opposed to going public, but that's their prerogative.
"I think the opening of the stadium was still a success and believe the stadium will leave a lasting legacy for sport."
The IFA received £28.75million from the Northern Ireland Executive to redevelop Windsor and next year local football is in line for a £36million windfall to improve facilities throughout the country.
Givan says: "We have this £36million that was ringfenced a number of years ago. We had nearly 1,300 responses to that consultation process, so that took quite a bit of time for the Department to process and analyse.
"That job has finished and it is now on my table to deal with, therefore I would hope to be able to do this early in the New Year and then we can move on and try to have this money spent.
"There are different strands within the £36million. Clubs will be able to apply to the strand they fit within. You will have your more elite strand for local football clubs and then you will have your grassroots.
"I'll be engaging with my officials to finalise the allocation of that £36million across the various strands and once that process is finalised it will go out to a public application process.
"With the criteria set there will then be a call for applications and clubs will put forward their bids as to what they think they should be getting and what they need and there will be an assessment process carried out.
"I'm keen that we get this money spent in our local sport. I've lost count of the number of football grounds I've been to and I can see there is a need for investment.
"The Department will lead this in terms of a Project Management team and the IFA will also be involved. This will be an important job of work in 2017."