Cramped and a capacity of 14,000 are the characteristics of Northern Ireland's Windsor Park. Robbie Meredith reports on what the future may hold for the national stadium
While supporters of the other home nations are either looking forward to Germany 2006 or contemplating progress under new managers, Northern Ireland fans are currently engaged in a surreal debate that encompasses, among others, IRA hunger strikers, George Best and US politician and billionaire Ross Perot.
Welsh and English visitors to Belfast for recent World Cup qualifying matches will know that Windsor Park is, in many ways, the least impressive “national” ground in Britain. Yet although capacity is limited to 14,000 and much of the stadium is cramped and antiquated, a full house produces a cracking atmosphere. In addition, the ground is situated a short stroll from the many bars, eateries and hotels in the centre of Belfast, meaning that visitors and locals can enjoy some time in the newly vibrant city prior to a dander out to the match.
Rightly or wrongly, however, Windsor is perceived to be situated in an area of the city that discourages Catholic or nationalist supporters’ attendance at games there, and a new “national stadium” for Northern Ireland has been discussed for the past decade at least, without anyone having the money or the gumption actually to produce anything beyond vague aspiration.
Until now. In 2002 Tony Blair and Gordon Brown travelled to Northern Ireland to announce a range of “peace dividends” for the country. One of these involved the Maze prison, situated in countryside 12 miles from Belfast, which housed many of the most notorious paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles, including ten Republican hunger-strikers who starved themselves to death within its walls in 1981. Yet the last prisoners held there were freed in 2000 and Blair and Brown announced that the entire 360-acre government-owned site would be redeployed for community use.
A committee of local politicians subsequently spent a couple of years considering suggestions for the land – including, bizarrely, a “much needed” Ikea store and a wind farm – before deciding that a new National Stadium should be constructed there as the centrepiece of a business, leisure, entertainment and residential development. In addition, one of the Maze’s “H-blocks” was to be preserved and redeveloped as an “International Centre For Conflict Transformation”. Political parties, including the DUP and Sinn Fein, normally implacable enemies, weighed in behind the project and the government announced that they would commit £85 million of tax- payers’ money to build a 42,000-seat stadium modelled on Porto’s Dragão ground.
In return, the three main sports bodies in Northern Ireland – the Irish Football Association, Gaelic Athletic Association and Ulster Rugby – were expected to take the unprecedented step of agreeing to share the stadium for major fixtures. All have made encouraging noises so far and even seem ready to agree to name the stadium after the recently deceased Best, while private investors, including the mercurial Perot, have already expressed interest in other areas of the site.
All well and good, then, except for the fact that the majority of local football fans refuse to embrace the plans. It may seem strange to those on the mainland who regularly travel long distances to watch games at out-of-town stadiums, but many Northern Ireland fans are determined not to travel the relatively short distance to the Maze to watch the team play. Before the recent World Cup qualifier against Wales, the Amalgamation of Official Supporters’ Clubs carried out a survey of more than 2,000 fans, finding that 86 per cent opposed the move to the Maze. Additionally, correspondents to the fans’ forum on ourweecountry.co.uk, the main Northern Ireland supporters’ website, have cited many concerns about the proposals, including fears that the stadium could become a white elephant, imposing crippling running costs on an already stretched IFA, which at present cannot afford to run a national Under‑21 team consistently.
The fans have received support from business organisations in Belfast who, keen not to lose the economic and social benefits of staging international sport in the capital, have suggested other sites for the new stadium, and their action has forced Howard Wells, the IFA chief executive, to initiate a widespread consultation exercise before making any formal response to the plans. Local sports minister David Hanson, however, has announced that the Maze is the only show in town as far as the government is concerned. Like Best in his prime, this one could run and run.
From WSC 228 February 2006. What was happening this month