Stadiums fit for our heroes on way at last
Football, rugby and Gaelic Games are the biggest winners in a huge £138million sports funding boost, announced last night by Minister Nelson McCauland.
The GAA's Casement Park will become the country's biggest stadium with a 40,000 capacity from a £61.4million share of the pot.
Football will get an equal amount, with £14.7million going to rugby.
The three sports will also have to provide substantial additional funding of their own towards facilities upgrades all the way down to grassroots levels, not just at the major grounds.
The lion’s share will go to the regeneration of Windsor Park, Casement and Ravenhill. But there will be new or improved grounds, as well, for Glentoran, Crusaders and Derry City.
And while there is justifiable cause for celebration among followers of the three main ball games, there is bound to be equally strong resentment and disgruntlement among the so-called minor sports who lost out in the recent axing of Government cash support for London 2012 Olympic-linked projects.
Tennis, athletics, sailing, basketball and cycling all took major hits.
The explanation will be that no new money was available in this era of austerity and cutbacks in public spending, and that the £138m release in the new Assembly budget had been ringfenced for some time as ‘old money' left over following the collapse of the ill-fated Maze national stadium aspiration.
That will be little consolation to the poor relations.
The bonanza for some, nevertheless, represents a triumph for a joined up approach in Government with the driving forces behind the boost being Sports Minister McCausland of the DUP and West Tyrone Sinn Fein MLA Barry McElduff, a tigerish battler for sports funding in his role as head of the Stormont stadium committee.
Cynics might say it will do their parties no harm, coming up to the May elections, to be associated with good news stories for the three most popular and widely followed sports, not to mention the bonus of jobs and investment in the respective heartlands of their leaders, east Belfast and Derry.
The money and redevelopment is needed, no matter, and the sports benefitting will be grateful for that.
It helped that football, rugby and gaelic were linked in a joint business case, centred on plans for the refurbishment and expansion of their flagship grounds at Windsor, Ravenhill and Casement, the most ambitious project of all.
Another question bound to be asked is of the imbalance with regard to rugby.
The answer is that the awards are based on need and the amounts asked for from the public purse.
Major improvements have already been made at Ravenhill, making the match day and night experience one of the best in local sport with new hospitality areas a real attraction and money-spinner.
Almost £15m will now be released in stages and go towards building three new stands at the north, east and Aquinas ends of the ground.
Windsor's cut of football's £61.4m will be £28m towards a 20,000 all-seater design with the remainder being directed into new and improved facilities elsewhere.
The Irish FA will have to find £5million towards the Windsor rebuild but with cash reserves in the region of £2m, they are in a good position to borrow on the strength of the vastly increased revenues that will flow from almost doubling the present capacity.
Hospitality boxes, along the lines of Ravenhill, are planned.
The IFA will also look to staging concerts, other sporting attractions, like boxing, and business conferences and conventions.
They will do so in a newly negotiated partnership with stadium owners Linfield, which, in turn will create a more level playing field in Irish League football.
Linfield have agreed to waive their current, controversial 100-year Windsor rental agreement with the Irish FA for hosting Northern Ireland games at Windsor, in recent years worth over £600,000 annually to the club.
That deal, with 77 years to run, will be replaced by a new agreement whereby Linfield will be paid a reduced annual amount but will no longer be responsible for the financially draining upkeep of the rundown old stadium, as they are now.
Ground maintenance will pass to a stadium management company in which Linfield will hold a major stake as owners, but with costs met mainly by the IFA through increased international revenues that will cascade to all clubs down the football ladder.
Among others funded will be Crusaders' plans for a move to a community-use, multi-sport stadium on Belfast Lough foreshore, down the Shore Road from their existing Seaview base. It will include a GAA pitch.
Derry City's old Brandywell is also in line to be revamped.
And, most notably, a new home is at last on the cards for Glentoran on the site of the current Blanchflower playing fields, just down the Sydenham by-pass from the crumbling Oval, opposite George Best airport, at Tillysburn.
That would see a national football training centre incorporated in a 10,000-seater model, with a hotel on site and ready-made road, rail and air transport links.
With plans already in place, work could begin there almost immediately.
Windsor, however, requires planning permission and a tendering process to be gone through before the contractors move in. That could take up to a year.
But, after almost 10 years of talking and getting nowhere on the stadium issue, at last something is on the drawing board which has to represent progress, albiet Northern Ireland style.
Irish FA President Jim Shaw said: “I am delighted at this news and feel privileged at being part of a legacy that will remain in Northern Ireland for years to come.”
IFA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson added: “This is fantastic news for the IFA, the wider football family and for Northern Ireland as a whole.
“We have been working tirelessly with Government over the last number of years and to see this project finally becoming reality is exciting and challenging.
“We will now sit down with Government and other stakeholders to agree a plan of action and hopefully we can start work on upgrading and constructing the various facilities as soon as possible.”