New Windsor Park to be opened by Fifa boss and NI’s leaders

The stadium, pictured on Wednesday
The stadium, pictured on Wednesday

A new chapter in the history of Northern Irish football will be written this weekend with the official opening of the revamped stadium at Windsor Park, Belfast.

The Green and White Army is sure to be in fine voice when Michael O’Neill’s men take on San Marino at 7.45pm tomorrow in their first home game of the World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign.

Demolition begins of the 100-year-old South stand in June 2014

Demolition begins of the 100-year-old South stand in June 2014

And the unveiling of the new-look, 18,000 all-seater stadium (in place of the old roughly-14,000 capacity one) will be the perfect way to cap off a historic year for the Northern Ireland team, who are still basking in memories of their heroic performance at Euro 2016.

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are expected to visit the stadium tomorrow to cut the ribbon and declare it officially open.

They will be joined by the top boss of world football, Fifa President Gianni Infantino.

A host of celebrities and sports personalities are set to join fans for pre-match celebrations at the freshly-completed stadium.

Famous faces from sport, TV and the music industry have been invited to take part in a ‘Lap of Legends’ around the pitch, kicking off at 6.30pm.

From former NI stars such as Pat Jennings, Harry Gregg and Mal Donaghy, to celebrities like Carl Frampton, Jimmy Nesbitt and Gary Lightbody, the event will be a fantastic occasion for Northern Ireland fans and a great way to warm up for the crucial World Cup qualifier.

But for many fans, the highlight of tomorrow’s glittering celebration will be the unveiling of the newly rebuilt West stand, which has a capacity of 3,400.

The former Kop stand was demolished last year after huge cracks were discovered in its structure just days after Northern Ireland’s 2-1 victory over Finland in the Euro 2016 qualifiers.

While the cost of redeveloping the famous stand was met by an insurance pay-out, the rest of Windsor Park has also benefitted from a major facelift, courtesy of £30m cash from the NI Executive.

The redevelopment programme, which began in May 2014, saw the full replacement of the football surface and drainage, the replacement of the South and East stands to provide modern spectator and media facilities, refurbished seating in the North stand, and new flood lighting.

The new headquarters for the Irish Football Association is located in the East stand, while the South stand hosts corporate hospitality and conference facilities.

IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson told the News Letter: “This will be a hugely significant night for football in Northern Ireland.

“We are delighted to have the President of Fifa coming officially open of this fantastic stadium.

“It is also great that the First and Deputy First Ministers will be there, as the NI Executive has been so supportive of the redevelopment project.

“We hope this new stadium will help inspire future generations of young people to dream of one day wearing the green and white jersey and playing for their country.”

While the new home of Northern Ireland football has been officially dubbed the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park, to many fans it will likely be referred to simply as Windsor Park.

However, that could all change if the Irish Football Association (IFA) is successful in securing a new sponsorship partner.

The organisation confirmed it is seeking to strike a deal for naming rights at its revamped facility, in much the same way that Ulster rugby teamed up with building material company Kingspan to rename its stadium at Ravenhill.