Ballymacash Sports Academy will this week host special needs schools from across Northern Ireland in a two-day football tournament at the Bluebell Ground in Lisburn.
After a highly successful maiden tournament last year, the decision has been made to run this year's event over two days, with juniors (primary schools) competing for the Bluebell Cup on Wednesday 16 May and seniors (post primary schools) contesting the Parkview Cup on Thursday 17 May.
Run by the Ballymacash Sports Academy, which is a newly founded co-operative in Lisburn that aims to make sport more accessible to all, the tournament was the idea of James Curran, principal of Parkview Special School in Lisburn.
This year the event has received additional funding from the Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council to help it grow even bigger, with schools expected to come from Belfast, Lisburn, Strabane, Omagh, Downpatrick and Portadown.
Both days will see the Northern Ireland mascot 'Footie' make an appearance, while there will be a barbecue put on for any parents who wish to attend.
Curran said: “Ballymacash has been very supportive, raising thousands of pounds for the school. I was invited to see the facilities and thought it was perfect for a tournament so I sent out an email to my colleagues and was overwhelmed by the response.
“We had our first tournament last year and Ballymacash provided the referees, trophies and the catering. Last year we ran it in the week of the floods but the sun shone on the day and it was a great event. We had lots of supporters and it created such a buzz.
“One of the referees said that Premiership footballers could learn a lot from the manners and sportsmanship exhibited by our young players.”
Neil Woolsey, of Ballymacash Sports Academy, said: “Last year we had 12 schools with 140 children involved. The demand is even greater this year so we have decided to run it for an extra day. The tournament last year was the highlight of our year and seeing the kids enjoying the day was fantastic.
“This is the only special needs tournament run by a club in Northern Ireland. The children usually travel to each other’s school to play so it’s great to get them all together in a competition. We want them to have a great day out.
"The aim of our academy is ‘sport for all’ and this is the type of community event we intend to hold more of in the future.”
The Bluebell Ground is home to Ballymacash Rangers, and is also the location of the Ballymacash Sports Academy, which is currently in the process of trying to fund a £1.5million development project to improve its facilities.
The development will see the building of a new clubhouse, a 250-seater stand, a gym and a cryospa, and will be funded in part by a £120,000 community share offer which will allow the public to buy a stake in the new Academy.