Derry & Strabane grassroots footballers ‘forced to change in cars’ as access to Council changing facilities denied

Saturday and Sunday league footballers in the Derry City and Strabane Council area are being forced to change in their cars whilst ‘elite’ teams are being granted the full use of council facilities, Councillors have warned.

By GIllian Anderson
Friday, 15th October 2021, 2:35 pm

Sinn Féin Councillor Emma McGinley brought the matter to the Environment and Regeneration Committee.

She said: “Over the past week I have been contacted by multiple teams who play in the Saturday and Sunday morning leagues who are paying to use council pitches including the Brandywell but they are being told they aren’t allowed to use the changing facilities or the showers.

“I can understand that we are still coming out of a pandemic and risk assessments are needed but teams such as Derry City, Institute and Sion Swifts Ladies are being permitted access to changing facilities. 

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Council pitches in Derry. (File picture)

“Whenever I have raised this with council officers I am being told that they are deemed to be elite teams. It is my understanding that executive guidelines around Covid have dropped that distinction that allows elite teams to have additional access to facilities. 

“At the minute we have a situation where players in these leagues are having to change in their cars or in the stands at pitches and there are teams coming in from other areas having to change in stands and to be honest I think it is entirely unfair because these teams are paying for the facilities and should have access to get changed before and after their matches especially now we are moving into colder and wetter weather.

“The Executive guidelines state that showers and changing facilities should be open and in use where possible. Other areas including Limavady have their showers and changing facilities open so I’m struggling to understand the reason we are denying teams who are paying for the use of our council facilities which includes the changing rooms and showers why are they being denied access.”

Fully agreeing, SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney added: “Whether you are an elite sportsperson or not you can still carry Covid and you still have the same risk. I think it is only right and fair that all teams that are using our facilities are able to avail of the same opportunity and use all of the facilities.”

Sinn Fein Councillor Emma McGinley.

Thanking Councillor McGinley for raising the issue, PBP Councillor Shaun Harkin said: “I’m sure the football teams that have been in touch with you, in touch with me and in touch with other councillors will be thankful it’s being discussed.

“It’s a very frustrating situation for them. When it was warm it wasn’t so bad but now it’s a different matter. It will lead to players not wanting to play because it’s ridiculous to have people changing on the side of a pitch and not having access to amenities whether it’s the bathroom or a shower.

“I think they have been very patient about this but I think we need to have a look at it. Even if all the teams were issued with lateral flow tests and if anyone was positive they couldn’t use the facilities.

“If elite teams are getting to use the changing rooms what’s the difference in local footballers getting access?”

Councillor Michaela Boyle raised the issue of access to bathroom facilities saying: “We did have a complaint about people not being unable to use the bathrooms and urinating along the sidelines of pitches.”

DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney agreed the situation needed to be ‘looked at and addressed’. 

He said: “At least if we could open the toilets and at least that mitigates the issue of adults urinating along the pitch.”

Director of Health and Community Karen McFarland responded to the councillors concerns: “You referred to Executive guidelines, we also liaise with governing bodies and to date the message has been one of caution where possible and that’s the approach our staff have taken.

“I do know at the start of the month the Head of Service did a review in conjunction with our Corporate Health and Safety team particularly around the implications arising from social distancing, from safeguarding issues in terms of our staff, around the compliance and the measures needed to be put in place by teams should there be relaxation in terms of the use of changing rooms.

“My last update on that matter is, that taking into account those issues and the social distancing implications, any decision to fully open the changing rooms, then we would be doing that on a risk assessed basis.

“Not all of our changing rooms are the same size, some of our rural facilities are quite small, then we have much more substantive facilities in places such as the Brandywell, so the numbers and utilisation of those varies from site to site so there’s not just a generic answer.

“In terms of bathroom facilities, yes, there should be access on an as-needed basis.” 

Referring to the Director’s response, Cllr Tierney said: “You mentioned the Head of Service had a meeting to discuss this. Some of the concerns I have were safeguarding, social distancing and safeguarding for staff and there are others as well. Why would they be any different for elite and non elite footballers? 

“If Derry City and Institute can change in the Brandywell then why can’t Brandywell Harps or any other club who may not be classed as an elite club because that’s the part of this the public are struggling to understand and I’m certainly struggling to understand.”

Ms McFarland added: “I can’t be definitive on behalf of all clubs but in terms of elite there are different operational procedures in place including testing for players. 

“Obviously the situation with Covid has moved on but there were significant and stringent measures proposed by the governing bodies for those sections of clubs.

“What grassroots football clubs do differs because they don’t have the same resources and the same structures and the capacity to implement lateral flow testing etc.

“We are open to keeping it under review and I will report back.”

The report will be brought to full council on Thursday, October 28.

Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter