Derry's stadium dilemma
The new look Brandywell Stadium reopened last month and is a credit to Derry City and Strabane District Council. With an enhanced capacity of only 3,400, however, it means that Derry City Football Club still play in one of the smallest venues in the Airtricity League of Ireland's top division. So how does stadium provision here compare to other cities on the island?
Derry’s two main sports stadia – Celtic Park and the Brandywell - sit side-by-side.
With a capacity of 18,000, Celtic Park is Derry GAA’s main venue. But despite serving Ireland’s sixth biggest county population-wise, Celtic Park is only the 20th biggest GAA stadium on the island – with small Ulster counties like Monaghan (population 61,000) and Cavan (population 76,000) having bigger stadiums (in Monaghan’s case - two).
Institute FC’s stadium in Drumahoe was written off after flooding last year, and as the club have just been promoted to the Irish League’s top flight, that presents a major problem.
It’s believed the club is keen to use the Brandywell whilst developing a new ground of its own, but authorities are fearful of trouble when certain teams visit.
As a result, Institute have had to nominate a Belfast stadium for their ‘home’ fixtures next year whilst they try to confirm somewhere closer to home.
It would be an indictment of our city if particular sporting fixtures still can’t be held here 20 years into the peace process. Especially when we’ve just spent millions of ratepayers’ money on a facility that can’t accommodate some visitors due to security fears.
Dublin, understandably, has the best stadium provision in Ireland - including Croke Park, the Aviva Stadium and the RDS.
It also contains three council-owned football grounds: Tallaght Stadium (used by Shamrock Rovers and currently being expanded to an 8,000 seat capacity), plus Shelbourne’s Tolka Park and Bohemian’s Dalymount Park, with the latter due to be transformed into a new 10,000 seater stadium shared by both teams.
Cork City is home to one of Ireland’s largest GAA stadiums – the 45,000 capacity Pairc Ui Chaoimh – as well as Pairc Ui Rinn (16,500), Musgrave Park (10,000 - owned by the Irish Rugby Football Union) and Cork City’s Turners Cross (7,500 - owned by Munster Football Association).
Belfast has benefited from £53million of public funding in recent years to create top-class stadia there for football (Windsor Park), rugby (Ravenhill) and Gaelic games (Casement Park). £9m has to date been spent on the controversial Casement Park project, even though it hasn’t secured planning permission.
Once approved, that development will receive a further £61m – bringing the total public spend on Belfast’s sporting infrastructure to over £100m.
Dublin, Belfast and Cork all have populations much larger than Derry – but even smaller cities like Limerick and Galway have superior stadia to ours. Limerick city (population 94,000) is well catered for - containing Ireland’s third largest GAA stadium (50,000 capacity), Munster Rugby’s Thomond Park (26,000), and Limerick FC’s Markets Field (5,000). And despite being only the sixth biggest city on the island, Galway has a 26,000 capacity GAA stadium, an 8,000 capacity rugby ground, and a soccer ground for 5,000 people (even though Galway United play a division below Derry City).
So why does Derry lag behind every key Irish city in this way?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that the GAA own most of the stadia in Ireland and the organisation is strong in south County Derry but relatively weak on Foyleside.
Derry GAA, therefore, bowed to pressure to create a new 7,500 capacity county stadium in Dungiven, even though it has a population smaller than Eglinton.
Dungiven may sit centrally within the county and be close to the game’s rural heartlands, but Derry GAA’s own development plan highlights that it needs to be “wise in the management of its resources” and lists Derry city as a strategic priority. It is arguably to the detriment of our city that they developed two county stadiums instead of a single high-quality venue in Ireland’s fourth largest population centre.
Meanwhile, hope remains that the Mark Farren Stand in the refurbished Brandywell will be expanded at some point, adding another 2,000 to the ground’s capacity. In addition to funding Windsor Park, Stormont agreed in 2016 to make a further £30m available to improve other football grounds in NI.
The limited size of sports venues in Derry has genuine impacts.
Firstly – the credibility of our ‘regional capital’ label is diminished if we don’t have the things you would expect to find in such a place.
Secondly, it reduces our ability to attract key events here. Had Ireland’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup been successful, Derry would have been excluded because of Celtic Park’s limited size.
Thirdly – even our ability to attract smaller occasional events here is affected. Munster Rugby occasionally play fixtures in Cork’s Musgrave Park – yet there is nowhere for Ulster Rugby to do the same in Derry.
Limerick’s Thomond Park has hosted international and club football matches, as well as major concerts. Even Breffni Park in Cavan has hosted GAA International Rules fixtures.
Finally – even after major investment, Brandywell Stadium still falls short of the needs of Derry City FootballClub.
Not only is its capacity proving too small for regular fixtures, if Derry reach the group stages of European football - as Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers have done in recent years - then that restricted capacity (plus the GAA’s ban on soccer within their stadia) would force the ‘Candy Stripes’ to play their ‘home’ fixtures 150 miles away in Dublin – and with it the opportunity to attract thousands of new visitors to our city would be lost.
So what can be done to ensure Derry gets the kind of sports facilities a regional capital deserves?
A major opportunity was missed when the council failed to combine the refurbishment of Brandywell Stadium and Templemore Sports Complex into a new mixed-use civic stadium for our city on the Templemore site at Buncrana Road. A purpose-built sports campus with Derry City and Institute FC as the anchor tenants, also capable of attracting the occasional Ulster Rugby and Northern Ireland Under 21 football matches and other major events and concerts - whilst freeing the Brandywell to be developed for new housing, facilities and employment.
With that opportunity now sadly squandered, it is essential that Phase 2 of the Brandywell refurbishment takes place as soon as possible.
In the meantime, Derry GAA should also advance the embryonic proposals they have for improving Celtic Park, and support the removal of the outdated ban on hosting ‘English’ sports so that European soccer can continue to be hosted in our city.
As for Templemore Sports Complex – its impending redevelopment must be used to deliver a significant new facility for this region. £38m was spent creating a superb new aquatic centre in Bangor – complete with the only Olympic swimming pool north of Dublin/Limerick.
A similar level of ambition for Templemore Sports Complex is a necessity for our region.
Derry is undoubtedly a poor relation when it comes to stadia in Ireland. It undermines our claim to be a regional capital, affects the ability of our sports teams to compete, and reduces our attractiveness as a location for certain types of events.
If we want to belong to the premier league of cities on this island, then one of the areas where we will really have to lift our game is in the quality and size of our sports infrastructure.
Steve Bradley is a commentator and regeneration consultant. He can be followed on Twitter : @Bradley_Steve