Friday, 11 March 2011

The budget and stadium construction. Put those celebrations on hold.

The very future of international football in Northern Ireland has been in doubt in recent years, thanks to a crumbling stadium at Windsor Park in Belfast.  The local league has also suffered, with inadequate facilities falling foul of health and safety requirements.  One of the few pieces of good news in the budget is that money has been set aside to improve sports venues in Northern Ireland.

The headline amount is £138 million, with GAA and rugby union getting £61.4m and £15m respectively.  Football is also set to claim a £61.4 million share.

The IFA has released a statement welcoming its allocation and, in difficult economic times, securing funding to renovate Windsor Park and other grounds is a result, but the Association should be aware that the figures require a bit of exploration.

Firstly, the aspiration is to give football £61.4 million over six years, rather than the four years covered by the budget.  The figures reveal (PDF) that it will come on stream slowly, with sport as a whole receiving only £11.8 million in capital spend next year.

That will rise to £69.8 million in 2014 - 15.  Only £133 million in total is allocated over the four year budget period.  Not all of that money will be poured into the "big three" sports‘ stadium plans.

Secondly, the whole of football’s share is not on firm foundations.  The presumption is that the full allocation for rugby and GAA stadiums is allotted during this four year period, as is the £25million required to refurbish Windsor Park.  The balance required to complete football’s ’regional stadiums’ then needs to be found in the following four years’ budget.  I’d not be treating that as if it were money in the bank just yet, if I were the IFA.

Supposing it receives the full sum and can complete the work on budget, the Association will be required to divvy up its money among deserving projects.  Rather surprisingly, the IFA does have a strategy document which lays out its priorities.

Its objective is to develop Windsor Park as a national stadium and in addition provide six regional facilities, three with a capacity 6,000 or more and three with a capacity of 4,000 or more.  These would be distributed, two apiece, across three roughly defined geographical areas: Greater Belfast, Mid Ulster and the North West.

As it stands, the IFA’s priority, after Windsor Park, is to develop a stadium in East Belfast, which will house Glentoran FC, further develop the Coleraine Showgrounds and Shamrock Park in Portadown and establish a National Training Centre.

Reportedly, some of the money will also go to Derry City Council in order to build a new stadium.  That could prove contentious, as it will house Derry City, who play in the Republic’s League of Ireland rather than the IFA's Irish League and who have had a chequered financial past (to say the least).

Football and the other sports are entitled to be relieved that their stadium plans have not been wiped out by the economic crisis.  Though the IFA, in particular, shouldn’t celebrate too heartily just yet.  It still has a difficult task ahead to ensure that Northern Irish football and the international team emerge with decent facilities and a hopeful future.

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