An ambitious plan to build a new 25,000 seater football and rugby stadium in the heart of east Belfast was revealed today.
An urban alternative to the ill-fated Maze national stadium, the £128m Blanchflower stadium development would be sited at Sydenham, close to major road, rail, ferry and air links.
The £66m stadium would be home to the Northern Ireland football team and Ulster Rugby’s major European games, hosting top local showpiece football fixtures such as the Irish Cup final.
The Ulster Rugby squad would report every day at a £10m National Training Centre, although Ravenhill in south Belfast would remain the traditional home of rugby.
And it will create 100 permanent jobs as well as provide a boost for the hard hit Northern Ireland construction industry.
The stadium, costing £66m, would be home to the Northern Ireland football team and Ulster rugby's major European games. It would also host top local showpiece football fixtures, such as the Irish Cup Final.
Glentoran FC will be the anchor club tenant, moving from their nearby antiquated Oval stadium, which would then be developed, probably as a business park.
A covered walkway, over the Sydenham by-pass, will link George Best City Airport to the stadium and a new railway halt on the Bangor line. Four thousand car parking spaces complete the transport picture.
The plans also include a 150-bedroom hotel, as part of the stadium design, modelled on similar projects in England at the Bolton, Coventry and Milton Keynes Dons grounds.
There will be retail and leisure areas, including an indoor five-a-side football arena, as well as Belfast City Council managed community facilities.
Gaelic Games will not be involved, as they would have been at the Maze, because of the GAA's expressed wish to maintain their Belfast presence at Casement Park in the west of the city.
The ambitious plan will have a few hurdles to clear.
The absence of Gaelic Games apart, it sounds like a good news story for Northern Ireland sport, one that ticks many of the boxes the Maze did not for its opponents, in terms of location, size, cost and transport.
However, there is a question mark with regard to the current home of the Northern Ireland football team, Windsor Park.
Football's governing body, the Irish FA, Ulster Rugby and the GAA were united in their early support for the Maze. But agendas, and personalities, have changed since then, particularly at the IFA.
Stormont politicians and Belfast City Council have reacted more positively to private presentations of the Belfast model than they did to the Maze.
Ulster Rugby sources have signalled a willingness to come on board for Heineken Cup-style European games, giving them twice the capacity of Ravenhill, and to base their Ulster professionals at the proposed national training centre.
But, despite being kept firmly in the loop, IFA chiefs remain non-committal.
Under deposed chief executive Howard Wells and go-ahead former president Jim Boyce, the IFA momentum was firmly in favour of a move away from rundown Windsor to a new state-of-the-art international stadium, wherever it may be.
A legal battle was shaping up as the IFA even prepared to break the terms of their 100-year rental agreement with stadium owners Linfield.
But with the forced departure of Mr Wells, the emphasis has appeared to shift back to redeveloping Windsor, so seriously starved of Government funding in comparison to other sports down the years, that its capacity has shrunk from 40,000 to 12,500, with the bizarre sight of a fire engine stationed alongside its remaining old wooden stand, during international games, under health and safety rules.
The crucial question for football, and the Stormont Executive, who will be expected to provide capital funding for the Blanchflower project, is where they will secure best value for the money Sports Minister Gregory Campbell has said he will divert from the Maze to boost the three sports and their facilities.
Windsor is seen as difficult to develop in terms of planning permission in a built-up area and would continue to be used solely for football.
Blanchflower is zoned for a vast playing fields area, whose current users will be accommodated in the new design. It will host more than one sport, with community and commercial aspects to make it self-financing.
Project manager Gilbert Graham said, however: “We are not in the business of talking down Windsor. We prefer to talk up our own project.
“It offers a great opportunity and showcase for Northern Ireland sport in the vacuum left by the Maze.
“It will create jobs, it will encourage investment and give this country sporting facilities to be proud of as the London 2012 Olympics approach.
“It will encompass everything that is good about the new Northern Ireland going forward.
“We've held exploratory talks with all the interested parties — football, rugby, their supporters, Government and the city council.
“They've seen our plans and the response has been largely positive.
“This was never meant to be a rival or alternative to the Maze, or to Windsor, for that matter. It was on the drawing board all through the Maze process.
“Our intention was to build a junior stadium but with the collapse of the Maze project there is a gap to be filled and we are ready to meet the need.
“Our plans are on the table. What we require now is a firm commitment... from the Government, from rugby and from football, telling us where they want to go. We can then build it in 18 months.”
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