THREE local Irish Premiership football teams have called on the Department for Communities to urgently progress stadia funding in Mid and East Antrim, and right across Northern Ireland.
Earlier this year, Larne FC, Ballymena United and Carrick Rangers joined forces with Mid and East Antrim Borough Council (MEABC) to form a group dubbed MEA United, which is bidding for £17 million of funding for local grounds.
The taskforce, which includes Ballymena United chair John Taggart, Larne’s Gareth Clements and Carrick Rangers’ Peter Clarke, is aimed at securing the “game-changing” Northern Ireland Executive funding for their respective stadia in Ballymena, Carrickfergus and Larne.
Led by Council Chief Executive Anne Donaghy, MEA United representatives met with Irish FA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson and the IFA’s Chief Operating Officer, Sean Murphy, last week to set out their collective vision for football in the Borough and press for backing from football’s governing body here.
And today (Tuesday) they urged the Department for Communities (DfC) to progress the distribution of a funding pot earmarked for investment in football grounds in Northern Ireland.
The issue of stadia funding is also to be raised with the Communities Minister, by East Antrim MLA Gordon Lyons.
Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Councillor Peter Johnston, said: “I commend the hard work and commitment of our three football clubs who, together with Council, are lobbying for this much-needed and long overdue investment.
“Football plays a vital role in so many of our citizens’ lives and our clubs are so important to our local communities, both on and off the pitch.
“I thank the DfC officials, including those from the Strategic Investment Board, for taking the time to meet with the group today and I look forward to hearing positive news around stadia funding in the near future.”
Mr Lyons, who continues to champion the work of the clubs, said: “I was hugely impressed to hear the collective vision of the MEA United group during a meeting last week and I fully support their efforts to progress the release of funding to upgrade our football grounds.
“It is hugely frustrating that almost a decade on from initial conversations around regional stadia funding, that this crucial work remains undelivered.
“I will be raising this with the Minister and I will continue to give MEA United my full backing.”
In 2015, the Northern Ireland Executive allocated £36m for a sub-regional stadia funding programme for local football.
Following the return of power-sharing at Stormont in January this year, the Executive stated its intention to complete the programme, which includes plans to upgrade Irish League venues as well as GAA stadium Casement Park in Belfast.
All three clubs recently submitted their responses to a DfC evidence-gathering survey on sub-regional stadia facilities in Northern Ireland, which aimed to identify strategic priorities for the development of soccer.
The clubs are currently working with Council’s sports development team to provide the evidence of need and demonstrate the importance of football and sport to the wider community.
Councillors on Mid and East Antrim Borough Council were updated on the work of the group at Monday’s meeting of full Council.