Last year, Ballymena United, Carrick Rangers and Larne FC joined forces with Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to form MEA United, in a joint bid to secure £25million from the Department for Communities for the development of football stadia across the borough.
The group has been calling for the Northern Ireland Executive to take urgent action to tackle years of underinvestment in Irish League grounds, and for Ministers to give a commitment that money will be ring-fenced for safety and improvement works on football stadia.
Now, in a written response to a question regarding stadia funding, Minister Hargey said: “As one of the commitments in the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement, I had requested my officials review the Sub-Regional Stadia Funding Programme for Soccer to ensure that both the current and future needs for soccer at all levels were appropriately addressed.
“I intend to update Executive colleagues in the coming weeks on my proposals for the way forward for the programme.”
The commitment was welcomed by MEA United, which has lobbied the Minister for assurances around the funding and extended an open invitation for her to see first-hand the superb community work delivered by football clubs throughout Mid and East Antrim.
MEA United consists of the clubs, key stakeholders and the MEA United elected member working group, which is headed up by Council Chief Executive Anne Donaghy OBE, and was established to help build upon the momentum that the initiative has gained so far.
In a letter from the group to the Minister this week, MEA United stated: “MEA United fully recognises the huge contribution sport, and in particular football, makes to our society, including the health and wellbeing of our citizens, our economy, education and much more.
“We see the opportunity offered through sub-regional stadia funding as immense in terms of the future of football, and in turn the potential benefits for our local community. This could be delivered for a total investment in the region of £25m, within the overall sub-regional stadia funding pot.
“We trust that following the green light to the much-needed works at Casement Park, attention will finally turn to the overdue delivery of sub-regional stadia funding, which is vital not only to clubs and communities in Mid and East Antrim, but right across Northern Ireland.
“Six years have passed since the Executive allocated £36m for the sub-regional stadia funding programme, and our clubs stand shovel-ready to get to work and deliver on this investment.”
Earlier this year, having consulted with key figures in the local community as well as some of the borough’s major business players, the working group launched a strategy and action plan that clearly communicates the council’s vision and future direction of football in the community across Mid and East Antrim.
The key objectives within the MEA United strategy include bringing football grounds Inver Park in Larne and Taylor’s Avenue in Carrick up to UEFA Category 3 and IFA Regional Hub status, as well as establishing a coach education programme for all three clubs.
It also covers the key aim of developing a national training centre for girls’ and women’s football at The Ballymena Showgrounds, as well as making the stadium a home venue for senior and under-age international fixtures.
MEA United includes Elected Members Ald. Tommy Nicholl MBE, Cllr. Matthew Armstrong, Cllr. Gregg McKeen, Cllr. Keith Turner, Ald. Noel Williams and Cllr. Marc Collins. It is jointly led by Anne Donaghy OBE, John Taggart (Ballymena United), Peter Clarke (Carrick Rangers FC) and Gareth Clements (Larne FC).