MID and East Antrim Borough Council (MEABC) and local football clubs Ballymena United, Carrick Rangers and Larne FC have launched their ‘blueprint for senior football’ across the borough.
Last year, NIFL clubs Ballymena United, Carrick Rangers and Larne FC joined forces with MEABC 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 announcement follows the most recent virtual meeting held between the three football clubs, key stakeholders and the MEA United elected member working group, which is headed up by MEABC Chief Executive Anne Donaghy OBE and was established to help build upon the momentum that the initiative has gained so far.
Having consulted with key figures in the local community as well as some of the borough’s major business players, the working group has drafted 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.
MEABC Chief Executive Anne Donaghy has previously called 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.
Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Councillor Peter Johnston, praised the ‘collaborative approach’ of Council, clubs and community in creating the MEA United Strategy document. He said:
“Football has a hugely positive knock-on effect in ensuring active and healthy lifestyles as well as enhancing community engagement and participation.
“I am delighted to see the launch of the MEA United Strategy and the joint efforts of Council, Ballymena United, Carrick Rangers FC and Larne FC in working together to secure game changing funding for the future of football in our borough. We are leading the way, through MEA United, for other council areas across Northern Ireland, in championing sport, health and wellbeing for our people.”
Cllr Gregg McKeen, who is a member of the Working Group said:
“We believe that there is a huge opportunity here in Mid and East Antrim to capitalise on this crucial investment which will significantly improve sporting facilities in the borough, bringing them to a higher standard, both in terms of health and safety and overall professionalism within Irish League football.
“The stadia funding will make a huge contribution to both individual and wider community health and wellbeing, and I continue to be extremely encouraged by the ongoing engagement between MEA United, key representatives within the community as well as local business leaders, which is helping to drive this project towards fruition.
“This is a very important document and I thank Council, the clubs, and communities for all their work to date. With our clubs all working together, we have been able to produce a fantastic and exciting vision for moving football to the next level for generations to come.”
Councillor Keith Turner, who sits on the MEA United Elected Member Working Group, emphasised:
“The contribution that football and sport in general makes to our community cannot be underestimated, and to be involved in such a critical and innovative campaign to create healthier futures and opportunities for all is a genuine privilege.”
Councillor Matthew Armstrong added:
“I commend all those, from across Council, clubs, community and business leaders, who have helped us reach this significant milestone in our bid for game changing funding for our local footballing facilities.”
Spokespeople for the three football clubs, John Taggart (Ballymena United), Peter Clarke (Carrick Rangers) and Gareth Clements (Larne FC), also issued the following statement:
“MEA United will continue to drive forward our aims for Mid and East Antrim to become a major footballing hub in Northern Ireland and to champion the inter-connectedness of community and sport throughout our society, now and in the future.
“Through the power of football, we can collectively work towards improved mental health and wellbeing in Mid and East Antrim, and by improving our clubs’ facilities, we can make a huge, long-lasting impact on society generally, as well as helping to bring economic advantage to the area.”
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).