The Football Association of Ireland launched a full-court press on Thursday afternoon, requesting Government investment of €517 million over 15 years to improve chronically outdated facilities across the country.
To improve everything, from community club houses to League of Ireland stadiums and training grounds, even the embarrassingly poor set-up on the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown, the association also seeks philanthropic investment via a new, independent foundation.
The FAI’s honorary life president Denis O’Brien previously paid the salaries of the men’s senior managers Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill.
But first call this week was to the current Irish Government, at a meeting attended by the Minister of State for sport Thomas Byrne. Targeted funds would not come from the sports pot alone, with the departments of finance, health and education also loosening purse strings to ensure that the basics enjoyed by rival European football nations, like girls’ toilets and an additional 1,000 grass pitches, can exist by 2038.
“Our research clearly demonstrates that Irish football needs funding, both private and public, to transform our facilities and infrastructure,” said Jonathan Hill, the FAI chief executive. “We believe football facilities in Ireland have been underinvested for the last 25 years and that we have fallen behind our European counterparts.”
No one person should be blamed for the FAI’s malaise, stressed Hill, before noting a dramatic reduction of the association’s debt from €63.5 million to €44 million.
“This isn’t the fault of any single entity, but it is a simple fact.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the FAI’s “facility investment vision and strategy” document is the finger pointing. Firstly, at themselves before highlighting the underfunding of sport by successive Irish governments, with high praise for how the GAA and the IRFU have gone about their business over the past 20 years.
Within the report, football’s turnover of €54.3 million in 2022 pales in comparison to IRFU’s €115.6 million and the GAA turnover of €96 million. The vast gap in how the Gaelic and rugby clubs “have performed extremely well in accessing funding” was laid out by the GAA receiving €431 million from the Sports Capital and Equipment programme since 2020, while the FAI received just €188 million.
FAI chairman Roy Barrett, who currently doubles as chairman of Sherry FitzGerald, repeated the stark warning he relayed to Government Ministers; the spike in population to over six million people by 2050 demands annual investment of €34.5 million from the exchequer to cater for demand.
Ideally, some of the €2.5 billion in additional corporate tax collected by the Government in 2023 would help to bring soccer stadiums and training centres out of the dark ages.
“There are significant surpluses and there will be next year,” said Barrett. “The Government decides how it will spend those. It makes sense in any economy, when you have surpluses like that, to spend a chunk of it on improving infrastructure.
“We have lots of needs in this society, with the housing crisis, the housing needs, but we also have a sporting infrastructure deficit. I do believe putting money into facilities over the next 20 years is the prudent thing to do.”
Comparisons to other European nations will be hard for politicians to stomach. The EU average expenditure on sport is 0.8 per cent but Ireland gives just 0.04 per cent, which ranks the current Government in between Malta and Bulgaria.
The overall investment required is €863 million split into three key areas – Grassroots (€426 million), the League of Ireland (€390 million) and enhancing international facilities at Abbotstown (€47 million) – with Government stumping up 60 per cent of this total.
The €34.5 million a year would come from six “funding vehicles,” which includes the Shared Island Fund and Brexit adjustment reserve. The FAI will generate 20 per cent themselves, €173 million or €11.5 million annually, with help from Uefa and Fifa grants, and private investment. The final 20 per cent would come via local authorities, including the departments of Health and Education.
Revamping 20 League of Ireland stadiums needs an injection of €250 million over 15 years to get them up to basic Uefa standards. This is emphasised by just three football stadiums – the Aviva, Tallaght and Turner’s Cross in Cork – being among the top 40 in Ireland in terms of capacity.
Ahead of next month’s World Cup in Australia, Hill believes the growth of women’s football “will suffer if we do not cater for facilities now”.
The enormous overhaul of archaic facilities was described this week as “ambitious” by Minister Byrne, who added that “the appropriate level of sustained investment is a matter for careful consideration.”
If the Government and a few soccer-loving, multimillionaire philanthropists play ball, work on pitches, stadiums and club academies can begin in 2024.
“The document is informed by the reality of our current situation so we believe the ask has been presented in the right way,” said Hill. “Will we get the money? That’s the reason we have put the plan together.”
Where the money would be spent:
Grassroots - €426.4 million paid over 15 years (2024-38)
The reports highlights a lack of capacity, even at established clubs, “which means prospective players, especially women and girls, are turned away.” Working off Uefa standards, Ireland is short 1,000 grass pitches to meet the demand of the projected population growth.
New and upgrades for 944 grass and artificial pitches: €126.4 million
Eight regional HQs: €48 million
32 community hubs/centres of excellence: €64 million
Clubhouses, changing rooms and floodlights: €188 million.
The League of Ireland - €390 million
Dalymount Park, Sligo Rovers proposed facility and Finn Harps Donegal stadium redevelopment would be top of the priority list as all three projects are “shovel ready.”
20 academy and training centres: €140 million
Phase 1 - 10,000 capacity stadia x5; 7,000 capacity x5; 4,000 capacity x10 and new pitches, LED floodlights and big screen (2024-29): €130 million
Phases 2 – 10,000 capacity stadia x10 and 5,000 capacity stadia x10 (2029-34): €50 million
Phase 3 – 20,000 capacity stadia x10 and 6,000 capacity x5 (2034-38): €70 million
International facilities - €47 million
Report: “The current FAI national training centre is nowhere near the same standard of facilities at comparative European associations.” There are no changing rooms for 18 international teams, local players and match officials. No medical facilities. No education facilities. “Very poor playing surfaces” and “zero security infrastructure to prevent the general public from gaining access to pitches.”
National football centre building: €26 million
Fifa quality 4G pitches x3, with dome over one: €5.5 million
Fifa quality hybrid pitches x3: €3.5 million
Kit room, security and operating costs for 5-15 years: €12 million