As of last week, Derry has suffered the ignominy of being overlooked twice in under three years for a place in a major Irish international sports bid.
The first such snub arose in 2015 when Ireland was making a high-profile pitch to bring the 2023 Rugby World Cup here. The original list of towns and stadia to be involved included Ireland’s six largest cities – except Derry.
With civic leaders here asleep at the wheel, it took a campaign run by people no longer even living in Derry to spur our council and politicians into action. That eventually led to Derry’s inclusion in the Irish proposal at a late stage, but we were still left off the final venue list if the bid had succeeded.
An announcement last week showed that little has been learned from that snub three years ago. On Thursday the FAI and IFA announced a cross-border effort to bring the UEFA Under 21 European Football Championships to Ireland in 2023. Just as three years earlier, Derry has been excluded from the list of proposed venues within that bid - despite being Ireland’s fourth largest city, a regional capital and one of its few genuine football heartlands.
Dublin and Belfast are understandably included, along with Cork as the island’s third biggest city. Limerick is there too, on account of its excellent Thomond Park stadium. The real surprise, however, wasn’t just that Derry has been excluded - but that the only proposed NI venue outside of Belfast is Ballymena! The 16th biggest town on the island, with a population of only 30,000 people.
The UEFA U21 European Championships is the second biggest football tournament on the Continent and delivers significant economic and promotional benefits to its host cities. The 2017 tournament in Poland injected £20m into that economy - through 250,000 overseas visitors and 100,000 bed nights, across the 10 days event. And with the 2023 tournament likely to increase in size from 12 to 16 teams, its benefits will be increased.
Ballymena’s involvement, at the expense of Derry, carries echoes of the 1960s - but there may also be a very practical reason behind it. Whilst the IFA have only offered a vague explanation for why Derry has been overlooked here, the installation of an artificial playing surface during the multi-million pound part-refurbishment of Brandywell Stadium appears to be a stumbling block. It was installed at the insistence of the council and against the wishes of many within the local footballing community - and UEFA does not allow artificial surfaces to be used in the ‘finals’ of its tournaments. The decision to make the Brandywell pitch synthetic was particularly strange, given that a grass training pitch was installed next door at the same time. Surely it would have made more sense to switch them around – making the main stadium grass and the training pitch the synthetic surface hired out to generate revenue? It appears that the decision to spend somewhere in the region of £400k (roughly twice the cost of a grass version) installing an artificial surface for the main Brandywell pitch was motivated by a desire to reduce its maintenance cost. Yet that decision could now exclude our city from a potential £20m+ international sporting windfall.
By 2023 Derry will be well-placed to serve as hosts in a major international sports tournament. We are already unique in being Ireland’s only cross-border city and in the Brandywell being home to clubs from both the Irish League and League of Ireland. Our road and rail infrastructure will be significantly improved by 2023 and our reputation for hosting key events like Hallowe’en and Clipper will be unparalleled.
Two responses are now absolutely essential from our council and elected representatives. Firstly we must determine from the FAI and IFA why we’ve been overlooked and publicly insist that Derry be included - with a commitment to address any barriers that may currently be preventing that. If the stumbling block is the Brandywell’s plastic pitch, we should commit to replace it if the Irish bid succeeds.
By 2023 the existing artificial surface will be halfway through its 10 years life-span anyway, so replacing it would merely involve bringing a budgeted expense forward by a few years. The cost of a new pitch could also be reduced by replacing it with a hybrid surface (part grass, part synthetic) - allowed by UEFA, and cheaper to install and maintain. And a cost-benefit analysis would probably conclude that replacing the turf would make economic sense for our city if it enabled us to be part of a successful Irish bid. The council spent £325,000 on Hallowe’en this year, with a target three-fold economic return for the city from that investment. Likewise - we paid a £220,000 participation fee just to get the Clipper boats to come here in July. So we already invest money to enable high profile events to take place here, in the expectation that they generate significantly greater economic returns.
The second essential response required from our civic leaders is a strategic one. In 2017 the Women’s Rugby World Cup tournament was hosted in Ireland. In 2019 the European u17 football championships will be held in the Republic. Last year a cross-border bid tried to bring the 2023 men’s Rugby World Cup here. And both the IFA and FAI are currently working with colleagues in Britain on a joint bid to attract the 2030 football World Cup to these islands. This is the level of sporting ambition which now exists in Ireland. The question must therefore be asked – does Derry want to be part of this ? If so, we must start structuring ourselves appropriately. That means that whenever significant capital investments are made in local facilities, they must be designed from the outset in a manner that is likely to boost our case for involvement in future landmark events. For example - with approx £14m due to be spent rebuilding Templemore Sports Complex, will that be done in a way that helps or hinders our inclusion in future Irish sporting and cultural events ? And what would be required within the plans for the new Complex to maximise the future opportunities it opened up for our city ? When making key future investments for our city it is essential that we avoid focusing on short-term financial expediency – limiting our civic horizon, lacking ambition and falling back on the old “good enough for Derry” outlook. Otherwise, in this era of increased ambition within Ireland, we will condemn ourselves to becoming mere spectators whilst other cities prosper from the events that our own short-sightedness has ruled us out of.
Lessons must be learned and steps must be taken to ensure that this is the last time Derry finds itself excluded from a major sporting or cultural bid in Ireland. A line in the sand must be firmly drawn now for the good of our city.
Steve Bradley is a commentator and regeneration consultant. He can be followed on Twitter at @Bradley_Steve