A COUNCILLOR has called for an update on a ‘feasibility study’ on the possibility of building new stands behind the goals at Ballymena Showgrounds.
Cullybackey DUP councillor Tommy Nicholl says such a development is now possible since stock cars have moved out of the Showgrounds.
He says such an enclosed arena would add to the atmosphere at the venue.
He was speaking at a meeting of Mid & East Antrim Borough Council in Ballymena this week where councillors were told the finals of the men’s Under-19 European football tournament, due to have been held this month at venues including Ballymena Showgrounds but which were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, have been rescheduled for this autumn.
A report tabled at the meeting of the Council – who own the Showgrounds – says the Council has been informed the tournament is now due to be held this ‘October/November’.
The report said: ‘This is a great opportunity for Ballymena Showgrounds and will be managed to ensure it does not conflict with any other fixtures. The tournament fixtures can also be facilitated within the Showgrounds calendar and within existing Council staffing.
‘The IFA (Irish Football Association) are impressed with the Ballymena Showgrounds and have confirmed now that Council have been successful in securing them, that Ballymena Showgrounds is one of their preferred stadia. On that basis they are now going to use Ballymena Stadium for applications for other European tournaments.’
The report added: ‘In addition the IFA have sought Council support to submit further funding applications for future tournaments in 2023 and 2024 eg UEFA Youth Tournament, Men’s Under19, Men’s Under-17, Women’s Under-19 and Women’s Under-17’.
The report continued: ‘The opportunity to hold European tournaments of this prestige at Ballymena Shogrounds brings positive PR (public relations) and identifies Mid & East Antrim Borough Council and Ballymena Showgrounds as a premier Council and location for events’.
The report recommended that the Council noted the revised dates and also give approval for the IFA to include the Showgrounds as one of their preferred stadia in any future European funding bids.
That was backed by councillors.
The tournament is set to feature eight teams including Northern Ireland and as well as Ballymena, venues initially included Windsor Park in Belfast, Lurgan and Portadown.
The initial plan was to stage twelve group games in the four venues.
It is understood the original plan was to have the semi-finals and final at Windsor Park. The tournament was initially set to run in the latter part of July.
At the meeting this week, Mayor Peter Johnston (DUP, Knockagh), said he was “delighted to note” that the tournament was rescheduled for the autumn.
He said: “Council approval has been sought to work in partnership with the Irish Football Association to secure future European tournaments at the Showgrounds, at their preferred stadia.
“This is a fantastic opportunity to showcase the ground as a premier location for events”.
Bannside DUP councillor Tommy Nicholl said: “Delighted this is on the agenda tonight as I have said over the years the one thing that has kept a little bit of sanity in this province through the years that we know of the Troubles was sport in general and football in particular and I have pleased that we can keep our eye on the ball as it were.”
He asked the Chief Executive Anne Donaghy, “that after stock cars have left the Showgrounds and Council agreeing the split of the funds set aside for stadia improvements, could I be given an update, not necessarily tonight but at your earliest convenience, on the progress of the feasibility study into the stands behind the goals at the Showgrounds.”
He continued: “I have always argued that this development is crucial on our part. We want to attract more and thankfully this is the beginning tonight but we want to attract more and larger games to the Borough and more importantly this will also, as someone who has played football and to those who are actually now spectating, it is very important that we increase the atmosphere within the ground and I would want the Chief Executive to have a look at that.
“We have a great facility at the Showgrounds. I am proud of what we have achieved over the years there, which has been commended, indeed can I point out, by other teams who have come to the Showgrounds.
“The IFA here tonight are saying the same thing and by UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) when they were over looking to see if we actually met the criteria as far as the European Licence is concerned. They were absolutely amazed at what has taken place at the Showgrounds.
“Can I urge the Council tonight, let’s have a vision to improve, move forward, and to build for the future. I think that what has happened in the past, that we have kept our people together through sport, let’s continue into the future as we look forward to greater things and greater days ahead”.
Ballymena TUV councillor Matthew Armstrong said he agreed with a lot of what Alderman Nicholl said in terms of support the Council has given at the Showgrounds.
He said the facilities were “second to none”.
Cllr Armstrong added: “There was a long and arduous process of replacing the pitch and there has been various other works carried out and it makes it one of, if not the, premier sporting facility in the Borough, however, what concerns me here is that the IFA, we need the IFA in terms of putting the case to the Department for Communities in terms for the ringfencing of the stadium money.
“The IFA have a hub at the Showgrounds which I believe is free of charge and I am slightly concerned that the IFA is going to push and push and then ‘drop us like a stone’ for want of a better phrase.
“And the reason why I ask that is because in footballing circles there is a train of thought that the IFA are looking towards synthetic surfaces of which there isn’t one in the main arena of the Showgrounds.
“Now, I have no problem with the tournament that is coming it will be most welcome to the Borough and most welcome to the Showgrounds we would all agree, but I think the Chief Executive needs to seek assurances from the IFA that they are serious about the commitment they are making with us because there is a lot of resources, there is a lot of money, going into the project and if the IFA had other intentions I think they better state their case now as opposed to us finding out somewhere down the line that what we thought is not actually the case because the Chief Executive and one of the directors did attend a meeting with somebody in the IFA and they quite openly said they had no money.
“So if we are looking for the money off the Department for Communities and the IFA aren’t going to put their hand in their pocket where does that leave us?
“It is all well and good getting these tournaments, they are fantastic that they are coming to the Borough, that is great but I would like the Chief Executive to seek assurances from the IFA that there is no ulterior motive here and to make sure that we are not left high and dry”.
Alderman Audrey Wales (DUP, Ballymena) said the tournament would hopefully bring much needed business to hotels and restaurants in the borough.
She added: “If possible, Mr Mayor, I would ask that the Chief Executive could make sure that a list of all the local hotels within the Borough are supplied to the IFA for visiting teams to stay in rather than always the Belfast hotels”.
Alderman John Carson (DUP, Ballymena) said he had been asked to convey “the sincere gratitude” to grounds staff for the good condition the pitch is in at the Showgrounds.
He added: “It is maybe not right saying it but you know every cloud has a silver lining and the lay-off hasn’t done any harm, whatsoever, as far as our pitch is concerned and the maintenance staff and those that are looking after it certainly have the Showgrounds arena and the pitch is in A1 condition.”