Tuesday, 13 October 2009

New stand for Ulster's oldest football club

Tonight I was at Solitude, the home of Cliftonville Football Club in North Belfast, to open their new stand. As a teenager, back in the 1960s, I supported Cliftonville and was a regular attender at their home games but this was my first visit to Solitude for forty years.  I received a warm welcome from the chairman Gerard Lawlor and before unveiling a plaque to mark the opening of the stand, I took the opportunity to set out my vision for a 'shared and better future' in sport.

This year also marks the 130th anniversary of the club, which was formed on 20 September 1879 by John McCredy McAlery, a young Belfast businessman, and it was the first football club in Ireland. Tonight was therefore a double celebration and there was a special 130th anniversary fixture against Glasgow Celtic Football Club. and the ground was filled to capacity for the occasion.

McAlery had gone to Scotland on his honeymoon and after seeing football played there he decided to introduce the game to Ireland. He encouraged the formation of other teams and also organised the Irish Football Association, which was formed at a meeting in the Queen’s Hotel in Belfast on 18 November 1880. John Sinclair presided at that first meeting, Major Spencer Chichester was appointed president and McAlery became secretary. Instead of preparing their own set of rules the IFA simply adopted the rules of the Scottish Association.

Last week I was up in Fermanagh at Ballinamallard United Football Club to meet some of the committee members and to see their facilities. Work is currently underway on a new 200 seat stand for spectators and it is good to see the improvements being made in sports grounds across Northern Ireland. These improvements are supported by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, through Sport NI, and are a good example of devolution delivering.

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