The quest for a new Northern Ireland national stadium is one of those new stadium stories that goes back a long time and never seems to end.
Most will be familiar with Northern Ireland’s current home, Windsor Park. It is definitely a stadium with a certain character, but also one which has its best years lying in the past, is slowly falling apart, and has a reduced capacity of just over 12,000 seats.
Windsor Park is also the home of local club Linfield FC, Northern Ireland’s most successful club and the actual owner of the stadium. The Irish FA merely leases the stadium from the club, and has not always be happy with the terms of the agreement.
With that in mind, initial plans focused on building a new stadium all-together, a proper state-owned national stadium. We are talking about the early 2000s now, and in the following years plan zoomed in on a site south-west of the city of Belfast near the small town of Maze.
Plans were ambitious, and involved a multi-purpose 38,500-seater which was part of a larger development for the area. Total investments were estimated to be £300 million, and local planners hoped to have the stadium ready before the 2012 Olympics so that it could be part of the football tournament.
While the plans were backed by the IFA and rugby and Gaelic football authorities, there was also a lot of opposition from local politicians, interest groups and many football fans that did not want a national stadium far outside the city.
In 2009, the whole plan was abandoned, but soon after other plans surfaced, including a proposal for a new £66 million stadium with a capacity of 25,000 that was to become the home of Glentoran FC (who together with Linfield forms Northern Ireland’s “Big Two”).
These plans also led to nothing, and while the IFA had initially been strongly in favour of moving away from Windsor Park, a few personnel changes later and redeveloping Windsor Park came back into the picture.
Redeveloping Windsor Park has now been the focus of the interested parties for the last few years, and things became concrete in February when Linfield and the IFA signed a new and simplified 51-year lease agreement.
The agreement releases a grant of £25 million of state money for the redevelopment of Windsor Park, which will be accompanied by further grants for other Northern-Irish clubs for stadium developments.
Most notable receivers of this money will be Glentoran FC, who intend to build a new 8,000-seater stadium, and Derry City, who plan to redevelop their present Brandywell Stadium.
Last week, the Irish FA revealed further details on their plans for the redevelopment of Windsor Park. The south and east stands will get completely rebuilt, while the north and west stands will undergo extensive refurbishments. This will result in a stadium that is enclosed on three sides and have a capacity of 18,000 seats.
The planning process now continues with consultation rounds, after which planning permission will be asked. The IFA hopes to be able to start construction in August 2013, and to open the completely redeveloped stadium in the summer of 2015.