BALLYMENA United, along with Larne and Carrick Rangers, have joined forces with Mid and East Antrim Council in the hope of securing funding for their respective stadia!
The ‘MEA United’ campaign, if successful, will see the clubs cash in on ‘game changing’ Northern Ireland Executive funding.
A taskforce, formed by Council and spearheaded by its Chief Executive Anne Donaghy, is supporting United, Rangers and Larne in their collective vision to transform the Showgrounds, Taylors Avenue and Inver Park..
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 the GAA stadium Casement Park in Belfast.
Irish Premiership clubs that are capable of hosting fixtures with a 5,000 capacity are eligible to apply for funding, with Ballymena United, Carrick Rangers and Larne all meeting the criteria.
Alderman William McNeilly, Chair of MEABC’s Direct Services Committee, praised the combined efforts and joined-up approach of each of the football clubs.
“Despite being rivals on the football pitch, it is hugely encouraging to see them come together and work collaboratively in this way with Council for the wider good of all in Mid and East Antrim,” said Alderman McNeilly.
“Improving the stadia facilities of the three clubs is an exciting prospect that would no doubt drive a positive change across the borough, raising the standard of sporting events in these individual towns for generations to come.”
The Chairman said this significant investment would be a timely and welcome boost to the local clubs and communities, particularly given the renovation works that have already been carried out at local venues already, as well as the investment that the Irish Premiership as a whole has enjoyed in recent years.
Last year the pitch at The Ballymena Showgrounds was revamped ahead of Ballymena United’s Europa League clash.
Meanwhile, following the purchase of Inver Park by Larne in 2018, the club invested in the installation of a new 4g playing surface and state-of-the-art floodlights.
And since the Irish League was suspended in March, there has been significant investment at Taylor’s Avenue where Carrick Rangers have made a number of improvements to enhance spectator safety at their ground.
Back on July 21 Guardian Sport reported that Councillor Tommy Nicholl again highlighted his dream of having two new stands built behind the goals at the Showgrounds!
The Cullybackey man has long campaigned for this to become a reality.
At the recent meeting of Mid and East Antrim Council the subject was discussed.
Cllr. Nicholl asked for an update on the progress of the feasibility study into the stands being developed behind both goals at the Showgrounds.
“I have always argued that this development is crucial on our part, we want to attract more and larger games to the Borough, and, more importantly, this will also increase the atmosphere within the ground,” he told the meeting.
“We have a great facility, which has been commended by other teams, IFA and by UEFA. Let’s have a vision to improve, move forward and build for the future.”
The long serving Councillor outlined that with Ballymena Raceway now defunct, and Council agreeing to split the funds set aside for stadia improvements, he would like an update.
Guardian Sport also highlighted that Ballkymena Showgrounds is one of the Irish Football Association’s preferred stadia for hosting elite competitions.
This plaudit is a major plus for Mid and East Antrim Council.
A couple of weeks ago Guardian Sport reported that the UEFA European Under-19 tournament was back on at the venue!
Originally it had been down to take place in July - but that was before the dreaded coronavisus pandemic struck.
But the tournament is back on again this October/November.
The Showgrounds will be one of the venues used during the teen European event.
Mid and East Antrim Council said the European Under-19 tournament is “a great opportunity for the Showgroundss.”
They say they will manage everything to ensure it does not conflict with any other fixtures.
A spokesperson said the tournament fixtures will also be facilitated within the Showgrounds calendar and within existing Council staffing.
And he continued - ‘The IFA are very 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 UEFA European Under-19 tournament will feature eight teams.
Rising stars of European football will play at the 16 match, 14 day event.
The venues for the games will be Ballymena Showgrounds, the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park in Belfast, Lurgan’s Mourneview Park and Shamrock Park in Portadown.
Back at the end of August last year Guardian Sport first reported that the UEFA European U-19s were coming to the Province.
Mid and East Antrim Council, owners of the Showgrounds, confirmed that the main arena pitch will be ready for football once the green light is given for matches to recommence for Ballymena United.
Council said that - ‘Pending the restart of the NI Football league the first football matches planned to be played at Ballymena Showgrounds will be the Under 19 European tournament which has been rescheduled for later this year.’
Council continued -
‘Prestigious events like this offer a welcome boost across Mid and East Antrim following the pandemic.
‘It will allow locals and visitors the opportunity to rediscover the borough where they enjoy the wonderful hospitality alongside our premier sporting venues.’
And Council has given the main arena its usual end of season maintenance. This includes sand dressing, seeding and fertiliser.
“It will continue to be maintained to a high standard for when play resumes,” said a Council spokesman.