How Irish FA scored £1m own goal to miss out on Sport NI funding
Failure to land a lucrative funding programme with Sport NI has left a huge void in Irish FA coffers and may have hampered the development of football in Northern Ireland.
A Sunday Life Sport investigation has uncovered the IFA missed out on a staggering £1 million grant to enhance the grassroots game here and improve all aspects of youth football clubs in Northern Ireland after applying to the wrong financial assistance scheme.
Just over two years ago, the IFA, along with every sporting association in Northern Ireland, were encouraged by public body Sport NI, who are the guardians of the money they receive from the National Lottery and Department for Communities, to submit applications for two funding programmes - Sporting Winners and Sporting Clubs. The investment in the associations, once they met and passed the strict criteria and assessment of Sport NI, would be paid out over a four year period - 2017-2021.
Sport NI held workshops, consultations and placed all information with regards applying for the relevant programmes on their website.
Sporting Winners, Sport NI have told Sunday Life Sport, is primarily for helping deliver success at the Olympics, Paralympics and Commonwealth Games, while Sporting Clubs is about the continued development of the clubs within the particular association, focussing on coaches, officials and volunteers. A number of organisations have used it to further enhance their women's sections.
The IFA, who had previously received a number of grants from Sport NI, opted to apply to the Sporting Winners programme as they believed, when Sport NI noted in their blurb for the scheme, "the programme has been developed to help more Northern Ireland athletes win at the highest level" that this would pertain to Club NI - a project which is designed by the IFA to help elite players in Northern Ireland reach their full potential and represent the association's respective international teams and also all the international sides - both men and women - under the IFA's banner.
However, Sport NI rejected the IFA's claim on the basis they did not meet the criteria - as it was for Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games sports - much to the consternation of Windsor Park chiefs.
A spokespeson for Sport NI told Sunday Life: "Sporting Winners decision-making was based on targeting resources to those sports best placed to deliver the highest level performances at identified senior international competitions (World, European, Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth).
"Size of a sport, in terms of participation numbers, was not part of the assessment in Sporting Winners. This was a performance programme focusing on medal, top-8, top-16 and top-32 performances.
"Numbers participating would have been relevant to the Sporting Clubs Programme but the IFA chose not to make a submission to this programme."
Sport NI have informed Sunday Life Sport that if the IFA had been successful with their application to the Sporting Clubs programme, and there is no reason to believe they would have been turned down considering the number of clubs affiliated to the association, then they would likely have been funded around £1m.
A Sport NI spokesperson continued: "The IFA had the potential to make submissions to both Programmes. The IFA made a submission to the Sporting Winners Programme. Sport NI used a series of workshops, online FAQs and a comprehensive guidance document to prepare sports to make submissions."
Indeed, Ulster Rugby, the GAA's Ulster Council and Cricket Ireland, it is understood, all applied to the two programmes but only received funding from Sporting Clubs.
Ulster Rugby claimed £547,964, the GAA's Ulster Council came away with £882,794 while the Ulster Camogie Council also picked up £252,136 and Cricket Ireland were awarded £373,995.
In an official statement to Sunday Life Sport, the IFA noted: "The Irish Football Association attended pre-application workshops that focused on the Sporting Winners and Sporting Clubs programmes (2017-2021). These were run by Sport NI.
"The association applied in all good faith - as did Ulster Rugby, Ulster GAA and Cricket Ireland - to Sporting Winners as this was the successor programme to two previous four-year cycles where it had received Sport NI funding for its elite performance programme.
"The association applied to the programme which it felt was appropriate for its needs at the time."
Sport NI are adamant they gave the IFA all the relevant information they needed to make an informed decision and made it clear preference would be afforded to Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games sports.
"Sporting Winners received 32 submissions, seeking a total of £22.6m of investment," stressed a Sport NI spokesperson.
"Submissions were initially assessed across multiple factors, and subsequently ranked in terms of value for money. This was determined for each sport, by consideration of performances in major competitions (i.e. Olympic, Paralympic, Commonwealth Games and the sport's World or European Championships) targeted by NI athletes within the period 2017-21 and investment requested from Sport NI.
"A range of investment options was then presented to the Sport NI Board for consideration.
"Taking account of financial constraints the Board's preferred option for Sporting Winners was to place additional priority on Olympic/Paralympic and Commonwealth Games sports. This option represented more value for money and was consistent with the Priorities for Action as identified in Sport Northern Ireland's Corporate Plan 2015-20."
Public sporting bodies throughout the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland invest heavily in their respective football associations.
Indeed, in the Republic of Ireland, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) were rocked last April when Sport Ireland suspended their €2.9m support over governance issues.
Losing Sport NI funding was a bitter blow to the IFA, especially considering in 2017 they had brought out a new five year strategy where they stated their vision - is to promote, foster and develop football in Northern Ireland - while the charitable division of the IFA, The Foundation, which was formed to help grow football at all levels, is continually seeking financial aid.
A source, connected to the Irish FA, admitted: "We are struggling in the current climate to attract investment, funding and sponsorship, it's really hard to come by, so I find this news astonishing and bitterly disappointing.
"We should not be missing out on much needed funding, especially when it is such a significant amount, and it is a big error of judgement."
The IFA, in two years' time, are expected to be given the opportunity to submit an application for funding in the next four-year cycle.
Sport NI have made it clear they will once again give clear direction on the particular grant programmes associations can apply for.