Funding stand-off leaves Ireland's National Hockey Stadium unfit for purpose

The venue in Belfield can no longer host international fixtures as the playing surface doesn’t meet the required standards.

THE FUTURE OF Ireland’s National Hockey Stadium as an international venue is in doubt as a funding stand-off has halted a much-needed upgrade of the facility.

General view of the match between Ireland and Argentina The National Hockey Stadium in Belfield. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The Belfield venue’s water-based playing surface no longer meets International Hockey Federation (FIH) standards with the venue’s certificate expiring as far back as 2013.

The FIH confirmed to The42 that Belfield isn’t currently a ‘Quality Programme Certified Field’ and therefore does not meet the criteria to host higher-tier competitions.

Hockey Ireland and University College Ireland (UCD) have held discussions over the upgrade of the pitch but neither are currently in a position, or willing, to finance the project which could cost anything up to €250,000.

UCD say it is ‘committed to the proactive upgrade of Belfield’s National Hockey Stadium’ but it’s understood the third-level university’s stance is that the pitch isn’t in need of an upgrade.

That’s despite the FIH’s intervention and a clear deterioration in the surface’s condition in recent years with wear and tear visible in both goal areas, in particular. It’s understood that repair work was carried out last summer on certain areas of the surface but ‘not to the satisfaction’ required.

The last international game to be played there was Ireland’s challenge match against Argentina in October 2015, while the Women’s World Hockey League 2 final in March 2015 was the last competitive match Belfield hosted.

While accreditation was not required for the staging of the friendly game, the FIH and Hockey Ireland say they reached an agreement so the venue could be used for the Women’s tournament without the necessary certification.

The National Hockey Stadium Certain areas of the playing surface are visibly worn. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The stadium is located on UCD’s campus and was built in 1994 for the staging of the Women’s World Cup as a joint-venture with the then Irish Hockey Union.

The current surface was funded by the Sports Capital Programme a decade ago but Hockey Ireland have been unable to apply for another government grant as an agreement with UCD couldn’t be reached.

Both Hockey Ireland and UCD Hockey Club — both of whom are tenants of the pitch and are allocated a certain number of hours for use per week — have expressed their bewilderment at the decision from UCD not to co-operate with the grant application.

The deadline for applications for the 2017 Sports Capital Programme closed on 24 February, leaving the cash-strapped governing body in limbo and the National Stadium unfit for purpose.

“The pitch has been in use for over a decade and has played host to countless memorable matches, both at club and international level,” Hockey Ireland said in a statement released to The42.

“However, it is now at the end of its usable life for international fixtures and there are more suitable pitches available around Ireland.

“Hockey Ireland and UCD are working progressively to establish and develop all options for the upgrade of Belfield’s National Hockey Stadium.

“We wish to ensure that all players and supporters of Irish Hockey and UCD Hockey enjoy many more of these days to come on the Belfield Campus.”

Hockey Ireland hosted the World League 2 tournament at Belfast’s Stormont Estate earlier this month due to the unavailability of Belfield. The last time the event took place in Ireland — in March 2015 — UCD was the host venue.

Shane OÕDonoghue and Juan Martin Lopez The last international game played in Belfield was in 2015. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

While Hockey Ireland say there are a number of pitches around the country they can use instead, Belfield is the only venue with covered seating for over 500 people.

It means the hosting cost of the tournament for the governing body increased substantially with temporary seating, TV and media facilities and other infrastructure required to be installed.

The senior men’s team played friendly fixtures on Monkstown’s newly-resurfaced pitch at Rathdown School and in Cork during the build-up to their Olympic campaign last summer.

Craig Fulton’s side are currently using the facilities at Three Rock Rovers for training and while the camp say it’s not a major issue, the situation is far from ideal as they look to build on the progress made in qualifying for Rio.

UCD insist they are working with their ‘friends and partners’ at Hockey Ireland on an ongoing basis but there is no indication that a resolution is forthcoming with the governing body unable to fund the project themselves.

The42 understands that a number of meetings have taken place between Hockey Ireland officials and representatives from UCD but several stumbling blocks are preventing any further progress.

It’s no secret that Hockey Ireland are pushing to move their headquarters from UCD to the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown, where the hope is that they would eventually have access to two world-class pitches and a national stadium.

Spectators watching the action The pitch is also used by UCD Hockey Club. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The prospect of such a switch may be behind UCD’s reluctance to invest in a new pitch in Belfield, with the college happy that the facilities are perfectly adequate to host club games.

While Hockey Ireland are the main tenants of the Belfield pitch, it is used on a weekly basis by UCD’s men’s and ladies’ teams for EY Hockey League (All-Ireland) fixtures as well as national and provincial cup finals.

Sources from within UCD Hockey Club say they have assurances from the college that the issue will be resolved by the end of 2017 and a new facility will be in place by then, but funding remains the major obstacle.

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Ryan Bailey

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