Tuesday, February 27, 2024


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CONCERNS have been aired about the future of Ards and North Down Council’s long-running Football Development Programme.

It comes after claims that plans had been drawn up by the council to significantly restructure and even shelve the much-loved activities which have played an integral part in the futures of young players across the borough and provided a platform for many of the stars of the local game today.

Current Irish Premiership stars Aaron Wightman, Matthew Lusty and Dylan Sloan are among those to have benefitted from the programme, in addition to a number of girls who have gone on to become senior Northern Ireland internationals.

A total of 16 initiatives are contained within the Football Development Programme, with the most notable being the 18-week Primary School League, a format which dates back to over 60 years. 

Other schemes such as the Easter and summer skill camps, adult and child disability sessions and the Borough Cup are all facing an uncertain future in the wake of the plans.

The council has rejected the idea that the programme is set to be axed, stating it has decided to move from a ‘direct delivery model’ and instead will work with both the Irish Football Association and Education Authority going forward.  

The plans have sparked bewilderment and disappointment from across the local sporting community.

Peter McAnally, first team manager at Agapé FC based in Dundonald, said he was ‘baffled’ as to how the situation has been allowed to reach such a point.

“I can’t actually believe this is up for discussion to be honest. I’m absolutely baffled by it.

“We talk about trying to get kids away from tablets and gaming screens and at a time when girls’ and women’s football is thriving, this is an opportunity for them more than ever,” he argued.

“Kids are so passionate about their football. You only have to look at the number of shirts being worn with names and numbers on the backs.

“I do look on with envy because when I was growing up, there weren’t the sort of facilities around as there are now, with 3G pitches and so on,” continued Peter, who has also spent time with Newtownards club Brentwood FC and Comber Star.

“The programme is not just a starting point for young footballers, but also for friendships and camaraderie. The possibility of that being taken away is horrible.”

However, the council has denied it is ditching the development programme. 

“The council is continuing with soccer development. There is no proposal to discontinue it but to deliver it differently in partnership with the Irish Football Association and The Education Authority,” said a council statement.  

“The council made a decision on February 14 to move from a direct delivery model and is currently working up plans for the continuation of football development, together with partners, by supporting clubs and schools.”

The issue was expected to be discussed at a meeting of the full council last night.




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