Windsor Park wonderland

Dame Mary Peters during the 'Lap Of The Legends' parade to mark the opening of the National Stadium at Windsor Park. Pic by PressEye Ltd.
Dame Mary Peters during the 'Lap Of The Legends' parade to mark the opening of the National Stadium at Windsor Park. Pic by PressEye Ltd.

Around 18,000 members of the Green and White Army turned out in force on Saturday evening for the landmark night in Northern Ireland sport.

The 4-0 win over San Marino provided a relatively routine first home success of the campaign in front of 18.234 fans.

However, the celebrations extended beyond events during 90-plus minutes of play as key figures from the worlds of sport, culture and politics turned out to support the official opening of the National Stadium at Windsor Park.

High-profiles names included boxer Carl Frampton, actor James Nesbitt and singer Gary Lightbody.

“With this project the Irish Football Association is both safeguarding its historical legacy and reshaping its football home in a way that fits the country’s needs,” said Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA. “Windsor Park has been transformed into a compact, world-class stadium.

“It is a smart and sustainable solution, and I am honoured to be here in Belfast to see this project come to life.

“Congratulations Northern Ireland and may the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park be the stage for unforgettable matches and moments for many years to come.”

Funding for the £38 million-rated redevelopment project was provided by the Northern Ireland Executive and the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure (now Department for Communities).

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness were among the guests, along with the Irish Football Association’s president David Martin and chief executive Patrick Nelson.

Nelson described the stadium as a “fitting home” and that it is “not just a building but a symbol of hope and aspiration for the new Northern Ireland we are all part of”.

“It is a privilege to be here this evening,” said the First Minister. “The transformation has been remarkable and Northern Ireland, along with first-class fans, now has a truly first-class venue as its home of football.

“The Northern Ireland Executive’s contribution of £28.75 million has helped deliver this magnificent outcome and I congratulate everyone involved in the development of our new National Stadium.

“There is no doubt that this summer’s EURO 2016 finals were transformative for Northern Ireland football and this wonderful new facility is reflective of our pride and ambition to take Northern Ireland to the next level.

“I have no doubt this magnificent new stadium will see many great sporting occasions in the years to come.”

The project took 29 months to complete and has featured the building of the East, South and West stands plus the refurbishment of seating in the North section.

The official capacity has been listed as 18.600, with four hospitality lounges named after four of the nation’s football legends - Pat Jennings, Danny Blanchflower, George Best and Billy Bingham. Ten corporate boxes will soon be joined by a centre of education and heritage, plus merchandise store.

Almost 1300 people worked on the construction project - clocking up around 754,400 work hours, 186,000 bricks and 1,900 lorry-loads of concrete.

“In France this summer Michael O’Neill and his team proved they were a class act both on and off the pitch and I’m delighted they now have a world-class stadium to match,” said Deputy First Minister McGuinness. “Sport has the ability to break down barriers on and off the pitch and the IFA deserves great credit for its tireless efforts to rid sport of sectarianism, racism and homophobia.”

Sports Minister Paul Givan felt it was a “very special and proud day for all those who have worked tirelessly to turn the vision of a National Stadium into a reality”.