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Delight as hardship fund for sports clubs in Northern Ireland reopens

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Mid Ulster Football League Division One side Annalong FC in Co Down was one of the sports clubs that did not receive support in April  (stock photo)

Mid Ulster Football League Division One side Annalong FC in Co Down was one of the sports clubs that did not receive support in April (stock photo)

Mid Ulster Football League Division One side Annalong FC in Co Down was one of the sports clubs that did not receive support in April (stock photo)

An amateur football team has welcomed the reopening of the Sport Hardship Fund but feels more should be done to support lower league clubs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Communities Minister Caral Ni Chuilin announced yesterday that the fund had reopened, allowing sports clubs to submit applications for financial support up to £2,000.

The Sport Hardship Fund initially opened on April 14 but closed just 48 hours later after over 600 sports clubs applied for the support totalling £1.245m.

Speaking during last month's communities committee meeting at Stormont, Sport NI chief executive Antoinette McKeown explained that keeping the fund open would have been "really poor governance practice" after surpassing the budget. A further £2m has been secured for the grant this time around and only new applicants can apply.

Mid Ulster Football League Division One side Annalong FC in Co Down was one of the sports clubs that did not receive support in April.

Irwyn McKibbin from the club said they will be submitting an application for the fund and hopes they have better luck this time around.

"It will be big boost because one of our big fundraisers which takes place every year on the last Saturday of July - the Andrew Burden Memorial Bike Ride - has been cancelled due to the pandemic," he explained.

"Cycling Ireland won't sanction it so we can't do it and we're losing out because it is the main money spinner for the club."

Mr McKibbin added that it costs between £5,000 and £6,000 to run Annalong FC every year but felt more could have been done to support grassroots football during the crisis.

"Nobody is actually thinking of clubs like ourselves," said Mr McKibbin. "There's not enough thought going into it. They're talking about Irish League clubs and Intermediate League clubs having it tight.

"The clubs that play on council facilities are fine because if the football starts tomorrow they can walk into a council facility with the pitch, the changing rooms and the nets are up but we have to do that ourselves."

Commenting on the reopening of the Sport Hardship Fund, Ms Ni Chuilin said it was important to support the sports sector so they can be ready to welcome players and fans back.

"This reopening of this fund will help those clubs who were unable to apply during the initial funding round and will also help clubs to deal with the social distancing and PPE [personal protection equipment] measures they now have to put in place," she added.

Sport NI's Ms McKeown stated that the fund is "critical" to helping sports clubs survive.

"Clubs are at the heart of our communities, as we have seen in their valued community response to the Covid-19 crisis," she said. "Clubs are also central in helping our society emerge and strive once the current lockdown phase ends. We will continue to lead and support clubs to connect and include all people, to give us a sense of belonging and wellbeing in our communities through sport."

The fund will close for completed applications at 12pm on Wednesday, August 5.

Belfast Telegraph