Local football stadia upgrade can go hand in hand with Casement rebuild: NIFL chief Gerard Lawlor

PACEMAKER BELFAST  24/02/2018.Glentoran v Cliftonville Danske Bank Premiership..Glentoran�s Curtis Allen pictured scoring his teams 1st goal during todays game at the Oval in Belfast..Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press.
PACEMAKER BELFAST 24/02/2018.Glentoran v Cliftonville Danske Bank Premiership..Glentoran�s Curtis Allen pictured scoring his teams 1st goal during todays game at the Oval in Belfast..Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press. Glentoran's ground - The Oval - is one of several Irish League grounds in dire need of an upgrade

NORTHERN Ireland Football League [NIFL] chief Gerard Lawlor has urged local politicians and sports fans alike to “not make the mistakes of the past” and build Casement Park for Euro 2028 – but he also warned that local football was in “dire need” of financial assistance to survive.

With the Department of Communities at Stormont having ringfenced millions for both the Casement Park rebuild [£62.5m] and sub-regional stadia upgrades for local football [£36.2m], Lawlor argues that the needs of the respective sporting bodies needs must be met.

“To bring the Euros to these islands is fantastic. For me, it’s a no-brainer. And yet some people are using Casement Park as a divisive subject,” said Lawlor.

“Unfortunately, that’s what we do in Northern Ireland. But let’s not allow the negatives of the past cloud our potential of a bright future, let’s not sit in 15 or 20 years and think: ‘If only.’

“How many people rejected the Maze [multi-sports stadium] project 20 years ago and are now sitting saying: ‘If only we had built it.’”

Lawlor sees both the Casement Park rebuild and the sub-regional stadia upgrade as complementing one another.

“Like Casement, we within the local football ranks have experienced many false dawns,” he said.

“We haven’t received our promised funding. Like GAA clubs, our football clubs play vital roles in our local communities – bringing people to together – but our stadia are in dire need of development and modernisation.

“If I’m honest, some of them are of third world country stadia. The lack of facilities, especially for the growth of the game, is deeply concerning – simple, basic facilities for women and children. That’s a real restriction on our current capacity to grow the game.”

While Casement Park has hogged the headlines in recent days, Lawlor feels that the funding promised to both GAA and local football by the Department of Communities back in 2011 is out of date.

“Like Casement, our costs have also risen greatly. Clubs with projects costing £4m in 2011 are now looking at almost £10m in 2024. My message is clear: let’s get as much money as we can for all our projects, let’s continue to grow sports like football and GAA, let’s really grab the opportunity.

“Let’s put the Ulster GAA, Irish League football and the Northern Ireland team on the map. The two sports can live together. I feel there’s a battle taking place where we’re seen as enemies, and that saddens me.”

Lawlor added: “I’m not an economist but you just look at how everyone will benefit from a new Casement Park – hotels, restaurants, shops – and it’s all new money coming into Belfast.

“And if people are coming to watch a game at Casement on a Sunday, is there a spin-off for local football that they might take a game in on the Saturday? That’s why I feel this should be seen as a hand-in-hand project.

“My number one priority, which I feel is being missed in the discussion, is sub-regional funding. That is my job – to try and deliver that and ensure our clubs are not forgotten about.”

Lawlor sees massive opportunities for other sports to avail of a new Casement Park with its bigger capacity and wouldn’t rule out NIFL taking some showcase games to the Andersonstown Road venue.

Over the past couple of seasons, NIFL has marketed the local game to very high standards while the clubs themselves are improving the on-field product.

But the north Belfast native feels the game is hamstrung by poor facilities and that some Irish League clubs are turning supporters away on a weekly basis because of their outmoded stadia.

“I would like to think if we can grow the game here, 18,000 seats at Windsor Park mightn’t be enough in the future to play, say, a League Cup final or anniversary games or to bring top European clubs to Casement Park,” said Lawlor.

“It just opens up so much opportunity in terms of different sports and conferences and concerts. How many big headline acts go to Dublin but don’t come to Belfast?

“If we knock this back now future generations will regret that the stadium was never built.

“Do people just want the world to stop as it is now? A new Casement would be the jewel in the crown of Belfast city. To lose that would be unforgivable.

“Remember, we’re in the entertainment business. We want to give people the best experience going to a game of football and in some cases we can’t offer them basic facilities of a toilet.

“That’s where we are. It’s embarrassing to say that, but that message needs to go out so that people know the dire need in local football.”

Cliftonville, Coleraine and Glentoran are just some of the Irish League clubs that are hoping to upgrade their facilities when the sub-regional stadia funding is released – but Lawlor says it must be northwards of the £36.2m promised back in 2011.

“Some of our clubs will go out of business if funding is not made available in the short to medium term because they are no longer fit for purpose, and that’s the truth.

“It would give clubs a while new lease of life and open up facilities for our young people. It would transform the sport here.

“The last piece of the jigsaw for me to allow the game to really develop and grow is to upgrade the stadia. Without it we can’t grow.”