Opinion: A spectacular showpiece but the legacy needs to benefit all of local football
A team in blue celebrating another trophy success at Windsor Park is not exactly a new spectacle for Belfast.
But Chelsea’s UEFA Super Cup victory over Villarreal at the National Stadium on Wednesday night carried extra significance both on and off the pitch.
The dream of hosting a showpiece UEFA event has been ten years in the making, but it all came to fruition, and then some, this week.
Irish FA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson had said in the build up that this would be a great advert for the country as they staged the biggest club game ever in Northern Ireland.
BT Sport beamed the pictures around the globe as the world’s media descended on Belfast.
And they couldn’t help but be impressed.
This was the biggest sporting event in Northern Ireland since Covid hit last year, and for me, the staging of it was up there with the Open Championship.
UEFA staff had been working alongside their IFA counterparts in the city since March, with more than 100 arriving in the run up to the event to help fine-tune everything.
You couldn’t fail to notice the impressive branding throughout the city and around the ground.
On your arrival well-drilled staff were on hand to direct you where you needed to go, and even the media accreditation was a slick operation despite the huge numbers of press members attending the final.
Significant upgrades were made to the technical estate ahead of the big match.
These included the installation of a new wireless network in the stadium’s media tribune along with a series of fibre connections to various parts of the ground to provide high speed connectivity for VAR (video assistant referee) and goal-line technology.
But this is what you expect when the likes of UEFA roll into town.
However, the slick operation at Windsor Park had UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin bestowing high praise on the Irish FA for a “great spectacle” on and off the pitch.
On the pitch the 13,000 fans in attendance were treated to a decent spectacle as Chelsea eventually came out on top on penalties against Villarreal.
The fans certainly played their part and despite being outnumbered the Yellow Submarine did their bit to create a fantastic atmosphere.
It was another special occasion for the famous old ground to look back on adding to some memorable games both for Linfield and Northern Ireland throughout Windsor’s 116-year history.
But with all these events the talk eventually turns to what the legacy will be.
The redevelopment of Windsor Park was key to achieving that dream.
The venue was turned into a modern facility to cater for fans and teams alike with a £30m investment some five years ago, and it’s fantastic to see a world class venue capable of hosting world class events in Northern Ireland.
Hopefully though we will now see a significant upgrade to other venues around the province to provide modern facilities for our local clubs.
Some stadiums are in desperate need of redevelopment, and hopefully now, on the back of the Super Cup spectacle, our government will finalise the sub-regional funding so clubs can proceed with the work, which will ultimately benefit the Irish League, local communities and football as a whole throughout Northern Ireland.
The Championship and Premier Intermediate League campaigns kicked off last week with the Danske Bank Premiership season due to begin in a fortnight’s time.
The pandemic has been tough for local clubs, but hopefully we are slowly turning a corner.
I know in the grand scheme of things fans attending football matches may be a very small issue, but for some it’s huge.
The successful hosting of 13,000 fans at Windsor Park on Wednesday night shows that it can be done safely.
So fingers crossed both home and away fans will be back at Irish League grounds sooner rather than later.
Local football has been built into a highly successful product in recent years, and the real legacy from Wednesday night’s showpiece European final would be to enhance that even further for future generations to reap the benefit.