Belfast Telegraph

New venue really is fit for Queen’s

By Graham Luney

They come from different sporting codes but they spoke as one yesterday. Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill, Down GAA boss James McCartan and former Ulster and Ireland rugby star David Humphreys have their own separate sporting dreams.

But they were singing from the same hymn sheet in a special opening ceremony marking an exciting new chapter in the development of sport across Northern Ireland.

Queen’s University’s £20m investment in world-class sports facilities isn’t simply a success story for the university and its students — it is reason for the wider Northern Ireland community to crack open the bubbly.

The great and the good of Ulster sport converged on the new outdoor facilities at Upper Malone playing fields yesterday to cast an admiring glance over the stunning complex.

The centrepiece of the development is the unique Arena Pitch that can host football, rugby and GAA and is the only pitch in the UK and Ireland that can make that claim.

Following hot on the heels of a £7m cash injection, transforming the University’s Physical Education Centre (PEC) at Botanic, an additional £13m investment has seen the transformation of the facilities at Upper Malone.

There are 14 further pitches right across the grounds.

A spectator stand, that can seat nearly 330 people, adjoins the new clubhouse.

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

There is also 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.

No wonder that Queen’s graduates McCartan (pictured) — who guided the team to Sigerson Cup glory in 2007 — and Humphreys were glowing with pride in the sunshine yesterday.

Top GAA players, the Ulster Rugby team and the senior Northern Ireland side are all expected to hone their skills at the facility in the years ahead.

McCartan said: “We have Belfast-based guys who use the strength and conditioning room to prepare for games and they think it’s second to none.

“There have been games here during the winter under the lights where it is difficult to get other facilities.

“In my day you were playing under orange lights in darkness but things have certainly progressed and I think it’s a positive reflection on society when all the sports can come here and compete.

“It’s a fantastic complex. For years Queen’s have been producing top players and teams that have been top class and it’s great to see the facilities falling in line as well.

“For years people were crossing codes secretly and perhaps playing a bit of rugby secretly and vice versa, but now it’s a sign of the times and this is being encouraged.

“There was a big night here for Queen’s against Jordanstown in the gaelic but it’s been the same for all the sports.

“Many of my family came through here and I was here for four years. I wasn’t that great academically! I maybe scraped through but sporting wise I really had a lot of

enjoyment when I should have been in the library.

“To finally win a Sigerson Cup final is a cherished memory and there was a great camaraderie in the side.”

Humphreys, now Director of Rugby with Ulster, said: “Queen’s is where sport started for me and they are special memories. Now I’m heavily involved in sport I can really appreciate how such a facility as this can make a huge difference.

“Students will benefit from a great sporting education and in Northern Ireland there are so relatively few players coming through that no matter what sport they are involved in, we have to give them the best opportunity to get to the top.

“Anyone in sport needs the facilities that will help them achieve their maximum performance level and while they can gain a degree at university, they can excel in sport and become stars in the future.

“Queen’s and everyone associated with this facility should feel very proud.

“You look and see the number of pitches catering for the different sports and you can say it’s as good as anything around.

“During the bad weather we at Ulster Rugby have used some of the artificial surfaces to train on and that’s the beauty of it, it caters for different sports on different surfaces.

“When you are trying to run a professional team there are different factors involved in getting the players on the pitch and doing different things, We have a good relationship with Queen’s in terms of using the PEC but these facilities will also be used over the next few years.”

Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill added: “The women’s team use the facilities and it’s something that we will look to use going forward at underage level and with the senior international side.

“It’s excellent facilities, you just have to look at the quality of the different surfaces, the changing facilities and back up facilities to understand that this is a special place.

“It’s phenomenal. The IFA have used it in terms of coach education and the younger age groups and it’s certainly something that will come under serious consideration in terms of the preparation for teams at underage and senior international level.

“We would probably want a more soccer specific surface than what the GAA would want but it’s still an excellent pitch and it’s great to see it cater for all sports.

“For the people who train here it can break down barriers and can bring people together. You can watch football, hurling and rugby and it’s fantastic.”

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