Belfast Telegraph

Lurgan Celtic staying in NI Football League despite rumours after Stormont collapse put ground plans on hold

Since their Irish Cup semi-final on 2016, life has been far from plane sailing for Lurgan Celtic.
Since their Irish Cup semi-final on 2016, life has been far from plane sailing for Lurgan Celtic.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

Lurgan Celtic will remain in the Premier Intermediate League next season and are determined to stay in their hometown long term despite problems linked to the Stormont collapse.

When they reached the Irish Cup semi-finals in 2016, it had seemed like the club might be dining at the league's top table more often in the years to come.

In the build-up to their final four tie against Linfield, plans for a new stadium on Lurgan's Tandragee Road had been revealed and hopes were high that Celtic could even reach the Danske Bank Premiership.

By December of that year, planning permission had been agreed. All that was required was the release of a ringfenced fund dedicated to improving the grounds of NI Football League clubs.

It all changed in January 2017 when the Stormont collapse led to the locking up of the money.

That put Celtic's hopes of a new stadium on hold and, with then manager Colin Malone departing two months later, it seemed like Celtic's bright future was unravelling.

Fast forward two years and the club has been relegated from the Championship, narrowly avoided dropping out of the NI Football League and earlier this month lost another manager in former Northern Ireland international Gerard McMahon.

Recent weeks have even brought sufficient rumours of a voluntary relegation that NIFL made their own enquiries.

It's easy to see why club official Ciaran Marshall admits to a feeling of 'standing still' since the Stormont collapse but he says rumours that the club are ready to bow out are wide of the mark.

"We're playing in the Premier Intermediate league next season," he confirmed. "We had the same queries from NIFL, who had heard the same rumours, and we assured them that we will be competing next season.

"We have the same struggles as other clubs but we're continuing.

"It's getting harder to get income and sponsorship. Media reports from the Premier Intermediate level that used to go out have stopped, the league isn't very well supported in terms of supporter numbers and there are also clubs in lower divisions around us that are competing for players."

Marshall also confirmed that Celtic are determined to remain in Lurgan despite their current lease at Oxford United's Knockramer Park running out in summer 2020.

While attempts to secure an alternative groundshare are under way, the ultimate goal is still to set up home on the Tandragee Road, with or without Stormont's help.

"We have contractors re-pricing for a smaller ground on that land that we could potentially look at," he said. "We're currently waiting for those prices to come back. Our eyes are set on a ground in Lurgan.

"Not having our own ground makes things even more difficult because if you had that base, you could host events and try and build funds as well as more of a community feel.

"Without it, you're training in council facilities or using other clubs' grounds and having to pay for those. Rather than that money going back in and being used to build the club up, you're helping to develop other clubs.

"The Premier Intermediate is probably the level for us at this stage because there are less criteria to meet in terms of the stadium and getting ourselves sorted for the season after next."

While Stormont continues not to sit, Northern Ireland continues to feel the affects; not least at Lurgan Celtic, who are forced to consider an alternative path into the future.

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