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“What people don’t realise is that we are counsellors,” says John Hayden, the chairman of Belvedere Football Club, standing outside a small seven-aside astroturf pitch at the East Wall Youth Club.
Belvedere FC has produced successful players who have gone on to play professionally and for Ireland. But training elite sportspeople isn’t how Hayden measures success.
“We had a young fella many years ago and his mam and dad were in prison,” he says. The young man, a talented footballer, started to get in trouble too and ended up in St Patrick’s Institution, a prison for young people.
The club applied for permission to take him out of prison for training twice a week and to play his matches on Saturdays, says Hayden. “The kid had a chance. He was a great footballer and they gave us permission to do that.”
After the player got out of prison he was recruited by a professional club in England, says Hayden. He didn’t make it as a professional footballer in the end but succeeded in making a career as a football coach.
That is a success story, says Hayden. The purpose is to give young people a pathway in life.
“You build resilience, you overcome adversity,” says Daniel Ennis, vice chairman of East Wall Bessborough FC. If it hadn’t been for getting involved in football, his own life might have gone a different road, he says.
In February, the two clubs got together to form a partnership and to create a vision for a state-of-the-art sports facility for the north inner-city and East Wall, based at the Alfie Byrne Park in Fairview.
That vision is for a shared astroturf pitch with a covered stand, a boxing club led by the Olympic boxer Emmet Brennan, changing rooms and indoor facilities for the existing motocross track, as well as a sensory playground for children with special needs.
The clubs think they can raise the €4 million they need to build it if Dublin City Council will give them a lease on the land, says Ennis.
What Is the Problem?
On a sunny Saturday morning at the East Wall Youth Club pitch on Strangford Road, 20 boys and girls aged between four and seven line out wearing their green, yellow, orange and red bibs.
To start the game the kids from East Wall Bessborough FC stand back to back and balance the ball between their necks until the whistle blows.
The match kicks off. There are tackles, goals and lots of balls hitting the railings around the pitch, and at the end an orderly lineup for penalty kicks. To the untrained eye, the astroturf pitch seems fine.
It’s not though, says Ennis, for several reasons. Firstly it’s a seven-a-side pitch.
Once children reach 10 years or older they will be playing with full teams of 11 players a side. It’s not big enough for that.
Even for those who are younger, this pitch is not in line with health and safety, he says, because there is no gap between the pitch and the railings.
So opposition teams can refuse to play here, he says.
East Wall Bessborough has a home pitch at Alfie Byrne Park, but most of the time they play in Kilbarrack, he says.
On their home ground at Alfie Byrne Park, “the pitch is often unplayable and we had to climb over the railings to get into it.”
The pitch was closed off because of scramblers, but that means that there is no disability access, which is totally unacceptable as the club has some disabled members, he says.
There are issues with dog fouling on that pitch too, and it’s because of all of those issues that the club has been pushing to get control of it, he says.
On top of that, when East Wall Bessborough play home games in Kilbarrack they miss out on local support, so having a proper home ground would help to build a sense of community, he says.
“You look at the GAA and what they have and I admire them,” says Hayden. “They put everything back into the community.”
The GAA are good at building a sense of community, he says. Football is different because the best players are hoping to move on to the League of Ireland or to go professional, he says.
Ennis and Hayden both say that it’s that sense of community that they want to create for everyone who lives in the north inner-city and Dublin 3.
Belvedere FC is an under-18s club, says Hayden, so he is excited about the benefits for their young people “When kids finish with Belvedere they start getting itchy feet, they are a bit lost.”
He hopes if they are sharing a home ground with East Wall Bessborough they will transfer easily into adult teams with that club. “They’ll stay together, they’ll stay in the same place,” he says. “The only thing that will change is the colour of their jerseys.”
Vincent Butler founded the Belvedere Football Club together with Fergus McCabe in the early 1970s, he says. “When we formed a football club the council gave us use of football pitches in Fairview,” he says.
They still play there today, but nowadays they are spending around €50,000 a year on renting astroturf pitches for matches and in winter, he says.
“This project for us is survival really,” says Hayden. The club has a vibrant membership. “We have 290 kids with 43 different nationalities and 42 coaches with eight different nationalities,” he says.
The successful expansion of the club means that it is facing financial instability due to the cost of renting pitches, he says.
In the past, Belvedere FC had an income stream because of a compensation programme, says Hayden. When successful players were recruited by professional clubs in the UK, they paid the original club compensation.
But now the League of Ireland takes on the best players and so that income is dwindling, he says.
This all means Belvedere FC desperately needs a year-round pitch, he says.
A State-of-the-Art Complex
Ennis says the council’s Central Area Committee and councillors representing Clontarf are backing the plans, as are local TDs and senators.
“Drugs are the scourge of this area,” he says. “What drug dealers can offer the kids of this area is cars, money.”
Sports coaches want to offer them a different life, he says. If they can build the complex. local kids can choose which football club they want to join, or if they want to get involved in boxing and train with Emmet Brennan or learn motocross all in one place, he says.
Several young people have died on scramblers too in recent years, so it’s critical they learn to use those safely as part of an organised programme, he says.
The FAI’s Football for All programme, training children with special needs is an important part of the vision, says Ennis. “It’s going to be a complex for people with any ability, capability or disability.”
Together the clubs have put together a business plan and have a good finance team and will be looking for corporate sponsorship as well as grants to finance the build, which they estimate will cost around €4 million, he says.
“We are looking to do this ourselves and go after partly private funding,” says Ennis. “It would be a massive fundraising drive.”
Anto Macken, the first-team manager with East Wall Bessborough, also played with Belvedere FC back in the 1970s, he says. “You can imagine in the ’70s there was nothing for children and youth in the inner-city,” he says.
He remembers getting changed using oil lamps in a shed in Fairview Park, he says. “This partnership is a dream for me because it’s the culmination of the last 50 years’ work.”
Macken lists off the names of the people who built up both football clubs over the years. “For me it’s emotional, looking at the kids in the area.”
There are so many new apartments being built and people moving into the area. All those children and young people need access to proper sports facilities, he says. “It can only be beneficial for them, it can only be a positive thing.”
“With the right will from the political end and the council end, if we can get this over the line it will be absolutely unique,” says Macken.
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