Limerick FC make Markets Field return a priority


SOCCER LEAGUE OF IRELAND:REPRESENTATIVES of Limerick Football Club, the FAI, Bord na gCon and a number of other organisations will make a presentation to a specially convened meeting of Limerick City Council on Monday afternoon as part of a process that could result in the first division club returning to the Markets Field this summer – 25 years after senior football in the city moved away from what many still regard as its spiritual home.

Talks about the club switching from its current base at Jackman Park to the greyhound stadium on what would initially be a temporary basis are at an advanced stage. However, the prospect of the move being completed depends on a package being put together for the purchase of the stadium from Bord na gCon and its transformation into a multi-sport municipal stadium.

The FAI and Bord na gCon recently commissioned Gilroy McMahon, the firm of architects behind the redevelopment of Croke Park to produce “a vision” for the 5.3 acre site and Des McMahon is due to present his ideas to Monday’s meeting.

It is believed that in addition to Limerick FC, a new rugby league club, Limerick Flame, which plans to enter a team in the British based Championship in 2010 is anxious to play out of a revamped stadium while the Munster Branch of the IRFU and local GAA authorities have apparently expressed enthusiasm for the idea of a 5,000 to 7,000 seat venue so close to the centre of the city.

In addition, it is envisaged that the adjacent Limerick City College and other local educational institutions would use rooms in the facility for meetings and classes as they do at English clubs like Sunderland and Charlton Athletic.

In total the proposals are estimated to have a price tag approaching €12 million with a third of that likely to go to Bord na gCon, who plan to move to a new stadium at Dock Road next year.

“A lot of stars still have to become aligned if it’s going to happen, but so far there certainly seems be a will to move it forward and that’s a start,” says Limerick FC’s American-based owner Jack McCarthy.

The club’s CEO, Andrew Mawhinney, will be amongst those at Monday’s meeting and he is hopeful that the club could start playing there either after the mid-season break or at the start of next season while remaining pessimistic about the future if the move doesn’t come off.

“I think from the point of view of the club, the Markets Field is do or die at this stage,” he says. “The club needs to offer something that’s attractive to the spectator if it’s going to survive.

“The football we played last year was good, but you only have to look at the size of the crowds we attracted to see that that isn’t enough. I’m not saying it would be easy but at the Markets Field there is at least the possibility of putting some serious numbers together.”

The FAI has been extremely supportive of the proposal with John Delaney and Richard Fahey, the association’s Director of club Licensing and Facilities Development, having already attended a considerable number of meetings in relation to the scheme.

Bord na gCon are anxious to facilitate the move with a spokesman for the organisation making it clear yesterday that if the basis for a long term deal could be agreed then they could make the stadium available for football matches within a matter of weeks.

“We’re very enthusiastic about the idea of Limerick FC getting what can be a semi-permanent and hopefully permanent home there,” says Rob Hartnett.

Representatives of the city’s government backed regeneration agencies have also been enthusiastic about the project’s capacity to provide a significant boost to the city’s sporting and educational infrastructure although the stadium, which is in the Garryowen area of the city, lies outside their target areas.

That, acknowledges Brendan Hayden of the Southside Regeneration Agency prevents the body from providing funding for the move, but, he says, “we have been active in getting all of the relevant parties together around the table”.

Council support for the project now is vital if it is to move forward and the city’s mayor, John Gilligan, is anxious to see that it is forthcoming. “I’ll be lending as much support as I can,” he says.

Cooperation on the project would also cement the developing relationship between the various sporting organisations in the city, something that has already given rise to plans by Limerick FC and the FAI to use Thomond Park.

Limerick hope to host a number of friendlies there in July with Sunderland having agreed to come and Real Madrid, Aston Villa and Celtic said to have reacted positively to approaches while the FAI is expected to stage two friendly internationals there in August and September.