Belfast Telegraph

Sponsor pulls out as Ballymena United plays Sunday football

By Claire McNeilly

A DUP councillor threatened to boycott his local football team and a sponsor has withdrawn its financial backing after Ballymena United agreed to play a match on a Sunday.

The Co Antrim club has said that it didn’t mean to offend anyone by saying it would play on the Sabbath. A friendly tournament, involving four teams and organised by St James's Gate Football Club in the Republic, is due to take place in Dublin over the second weekend in July.

But Ballymena United club secretary Don Sterling said that the decision to let the local team play on the Sabbath during the two-day competition had proved unpopular.

“Maybe in hindsight it might have been better perhaps to have not played on the Sunday, but we’re committed to it now and we’re going ahead with it,” Mr Sterling said.

“It’s only a friendly competition and had the players been away for a weekend training they would have been training on Sunday anyway. Ballymena has no wish offend anybody and they respect people’s religious beliefs; there’s no question about that.

“But we felt, under the circumstances, with the tournament already being arranged and the hotel being paid for, that it was going to be very difficult to pull out — so we decided to go ahead with it.”

He added: “You have to bear in mind that in Ballymena everything is open now anyway and there have been sporting functions like football tournaments for kids held at the Showgrounds on a Sunday.”

It is believed that Ballymena DUP councillor John Carson had initially threatened to boycott matches, but has since bought a season ticket.

“He got a bit annoyed about it but cooled down and realised that it wasn’t going to be as bad as he thought,” said an insider.

Despite numerous attempts to reach Mr Carson yesterday, he did not answer his phone or return any of this newspaper’s calls.

JBE Building Services, the team’s secondary sponsor, was also said to be unhappy about the match being played on July 15. This is thought to have prompted a decision to withdraw its financial backing, although the firm’s sponsorship contract was coming to an end. Company co-owner John Blair was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Nigel McIlrath, from Gordon F W McIIrath solicitors, is understood to have agreed to replace JBE as the squad’s secondary sponsor. Mr McIlrath declined to comment, but the move would see them join forces with the team’s main sponsor McBurney Transport.

At Ballymena United’s AGM, which was held last Wednesday evening, one or two people expressed their reservations about the decision.

But a source said: “In the main there was no protest because people understood it is 2012 and it’s one of these things”.

Background

Never-on-a-Sunday rows:

  • In 2004, then DUP leader Ian Paisley led a protest outside Ravenhill rugby ground as the Ulster team thrashed Leicester on the pitch inside the grounds. Around 40 people sang hymns in protest at the Sunday game.
  • Until the late 1960s, children's swings used to be chained up on Sundays in some unionist-controlled council areas. Leisure centres were later opened on Sundays in order to remain economically viable and Sunday afternoon trading, once banned, was permitted.
  • More recently, Northern Ireland’s Sunday drinks licensing laws meant pubs and clubs could not legally host aftershow parties for the MTV European Music Awards, and Free Presbyterians opposed holding the Belfast Marathon on a Sunday.


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