Belfast Telegraph

New £20m Queen's facility lauded by all sporting bodies

By Graham Luney

It’s called ‘our wee country’ for a reason. With a population of only 1.6 million people, Northern Ireland has needed to punch above its weight to grasp sporting glory.

Many individuals are born with natural ability but their opportunities to hit the big time can only be enhanced by world class facilities allowing them to be the best that they can be.

Today marks the official opening of a massive sporting project that promises to create more success stories.

Queen’s University’s £20million cash injection for sport will have enormous benefits for the wider Northern Ireland community, not simply those that want to grasp an Olympic gold medal, Heineken Cup or All-Ireland trophy.

An ambitious plan launched almost 10 years ago set the wheels in motion for a £7m investment for indoor sport.

The facilities at the University’s Physical Education Centre (PEC) at Botanic were expanded and upgraded and have been fully operational since 2006.

But a further £13million investment has seen the transformation of the facilities at Upper Malone and the centrepiece of the development is the unique Arena Pitch.

It can host football, rugby and GAA and is the only pitch in Ireland with the capability to accommodate all three sports on one single site.

Ulster Rugby already use the impressive complex, with development squad matches taking place there while Ravens matches could be staged in the future.

Brian McLaughlin’s side train at Newforge but Ulster could be spending more time at the Queen’s complex in the coming months.

The Antrim GAA team also train on the site and there have been discussions over the possibility of a National League game going ahead at the facility.

The Irish Football Association operate a coaching education programme at Queen’s with the likes of Celtic manager Neil Lennon and Republic of Ireland international Shay Given dropping in.

The Northern Ireland team could also be set to switch their training routine from Newforge to Queen’s.

While the ambitious Maze Stadium project never got off the ground, this sporting creation — albeit on a much smaller scale — embraces the same philosophy. It unites the big sports and it’s no surprise that attending today’s official opening of the facilities were Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill and Queen’s graduates, Down GAA manager James McCartan and former Ulster and Ireland rugby star David Humphreys.

Olympians Mary Peters and Jimmy Kirkwood, who both honed their skills while at the university, must be bursting with pride at seeing such a world-class facility in Belfast.

Karl Oakes, sports development manager at Queen’s University, said: “I can remember playing in the old Dub back in my student days and to see the whole area transformed is wonderful.

“The centrepiece of the facilities is the Arena Pitch which is unique in Ireland. Croke Park is possibly the best example of such a facility but we have taken on the mantle and I know there has been talk of the Antrim team using the facility on a more permanent basis.

“The team have already been using the strength and conditioning suite and it’s an excellent training facility for all the sporting codes and for the community.

“Ulster Rugby also use the site and there is scope for Ravens matches and development squad games to take place there.

“The Under-17s have already played a few matches.”

There are 14 further pitches right across the Malone grounds.

A spectator stand adjoins the new clubhouse which has been designed to blend with its surroundings.

There are 22 changing rooms, plus extra changing facilities at the southern end of the site.

There is a strength and conditioning suite, as well as conference and hospitality facilities.

And there is a 3km recreational trim trail, funded by Ulster Garden Villages.

An exciting time for Queens, but it’s Northern Ireland and its next generation of sporting heroes who will reap the benefits.

Belfast Telegraph

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