Antrim hit jackpot in bid to revitalise Belfast's GAA school scene
An ambitious funding project in the region of £315,000 per annum is set to kick in for Antrim GAA in time for the start of the next school year in September.
The Antrim county board have been in negotiations with Croke Park and various stakeholders over the last year to claim funding to revolutionise participation in the greater Belfast area.
Out of the schools population in greater Belfast - in the region of 48,000 - studies have shown that roughly 2,500 are registered with GAA clubs.
The funding has been ring-fenced with some of the terms and conditions still to be ironed out.
Antrim had a body of delegates, including Sean McGourty, Adrian Hamill and Mark Barr, who represented their interests and while there have been some negotiations over the final figure, it is believed that Croke Park will finance 70% of the plan, with the rest split between Belfast City Council, the Ulster Council and Antrim county board.
The process has already begun to recruit a Director of Coaching, who will oversee the project and manage the budgets, and up to eight coaches spread around the schools, acting as a link to local clubs.
Five regional coaching 'hubs' will be created and based at all-weather facilities across the city in Woodlands Park, Sally Gardens in Poleglass, the Cliftonville playing fields, Falls Park and Cherryvale Park.
A few amendments, however, still need to be made to the business plan, though the money has been ring-fenced by Paraic Duffy in one of his last big projects as Director-General before his impending retirement.
With Belfast the second biggest city on the island, the project reflects, on a much more modest scale, the lavish funding that was bestowed on Dublin GAA from 2005 to 2009, with €5million in the form of Games Development Grants.
As someone who spent a few years living in Dublin and witnessed first-hand the impact that level of funding had on Gaelic games in the capital having coached Ballyboden St Enda's, the current Antrim senior football manager Lenny Harbinson believes this funding is crucial to the survival, and aspirational thriving, of Gaelic Games in Belfast.
"Having a co-ordinated approach to Gaelic games with the schools and clubs is important. Some of the schools may not have people or teachers who are comfortable or fully understand the intricacies of hurling or football. To have a coach come in and show them how to do that is a big bonus," Harbinson explained.
"Likewise, that person is also in the local clubs, using the schools as feeders - that is part of it.
"I think the Casement Project is another massive part of that jigsaw in terms of allowing youngsters to have a stadium that they can look across to in Belfast, an iconic stadium that they want to play at."
He continued: "What has happened in Dublin is that Croke Park when it was re-developed, parents looked to that as somewhere that at some stage they wanted their son or daughter to play at.
"There is a similar positive knock-on that if we could get Casement Park back up and running, many youngsters in schools and clubs can aspire to playing there.
"And people in Antrim have to help themselves too. We have to help ourselves when it is up and running to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible."
This project and the delivery of the funding will be the latest feather in the cap of 'Saffron Vision', which was the title given to several county board members who were elected almost entirely en masse a couple of years ago.
Added to the establishment of the Saffron Business Forum, a fundraising arm of the county board, there is significant optimism among the county, agrees Harbinson.
"The current county board, over the last two or three years, have put in a massive amount of work in terms of getting their house in order, the finances and whatever else," Harbinson explained.
"They link back a lot now to the Saffron Business Forum and that has re-invigorated things, and there are well over 100 members. That is another good thing. Those members are helping to fund development squads. That's a big step forward.
"In Dunsilly, there are three pitches at the minute and we have trained on them a number of times, and the next plan they have is to look at a strength and conditioning centre. As we know, that takes money and much more so I think that is another phase of the plan.
"The under-investment down through the years from the council in sports grounds, from a GAA perspective, is being readdressed. So there is a lot of positive momentum going on behind the scenes which builds a solid foundation."