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CONTROVERSIAL plans to transfer the delivery of youth soccer from Ards and North Down Council to local schools and soccer bodies over the next three years, have been hailed a success so far.

Independent councillor Steven Irvine said he had gone to last Wednesday’s meeting of the council’s Community and Wellbeing committee prepared ‘to question everything’.

But following his reading of a report on the transition plans, he said he had been ‘lost for words’, stating the three year process appeared ‘absolutely unbelievable’. 

The Newtowards councillor was particularly delighted with the council’s reintroduction of the Children’s Disability Football Programme, which was brought to a close by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last year the council agreed to transfer its management and funding of primary school leagues to the Irish Football Association, the Education Authority and local schools.

The transition plan started in September 2023 and, under the guidance of the council’s Sports Development Team, it is to be handed over to its new managers by the 2025/2026 season.

The council previously covered all costs associated with the Soccer Development Programme, including facility hire, coach and referee provision and administrative support. 

During the transition period, the council will gradually pass the financing of youth soccer, pledging to pay 50% of facility hire, while schools will pay the other half.

By year three, 2025/26, schools are to lead on the programme, with all costs being transferred to them.

The plans apply to schools outside Bangor, which were already providing for their soccer needs without financial support from council.

The report pledged to explore ‘all revenue streams including funding to alleviate running costs going forward for all’ as part of the three year process’

The report noted that the council’s popular soccer camps held every Halloween, Easter and summer holiday periods had been affected by the transfer proposals, presumably ‘linked to the increasing availability of alternatives within the market’.

As a result, schemes run by clubs and other private operators were seen to be on the rise, showing that the ‘removal of council schemes’ would have ‘no net detrimental effect’ on local provision.

Mr Irvine said he had been bowled over by the contents of the report.

“We brought this to council last year during the rate setting process and it nearly slipped through but after reading the report I’m lost for words,” he said.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable. Everything that was asked, above and beyond, and I can see that there is still going to be help for schools going into the 2024/25 season.”

Mr Irvine referred to the council’s reintroduction of the Children’s Disability Football Programme, which was closed in 2020 as a result of the Covid 10 pandemic.

Noting that Castle Juniors DFC and Orchardville FC in Bangor, and Ards Rangers and Ards FC in Newtownards, were working with the IFA to provide opportunities for children with disabilities to participate within the club setting, the report stressed that the council will ‘maintain direct delivery of this scheme post transition’.

“Children will be signposted to local inclusive clubs but for many children and their parents this first exposure to soccer is particularly challenging and officers believe the council is an appropriate delivery agent at this level.”

Mr Irvine added his appreciation that the council’s plans to retain the Borough Cup,  as a one-day event, ‘is an absolutely brilliant idea’.

SDLP Joe Boyle agreed ‘it is a good news story’.

“I don’t think there was a primary school that didn’t get on to us and were disgusted by the way things were going,” he said.

“It is a good news story for the borough overall, for all those schools and all those kids, something that we thought that was gone last year.”

He praised Mr Irvine for ‘resurrecting’ the issue, and for coming into the chamber ‘fighting’ for it, stating his efforts had borne fruit.

The committee approved the youth soccer plan, which must also be supported by the full council.

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