Work starts at Belfast’s Euro 2028 ghost ground with clock ticking

<span>Workmen at Casement Park in Belfast which is undergoing a rebuild.</span><span>Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA</span>
Workmen at Casement Park in Belfast which is undergoing a rebuild.Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Patrick Nelson speaks with such conviction about Northern Ireland staging games in the 2028 Euros that one would wonder what all the fuss is about. “We take the view that when you put a hurdle in front of us, we clear it and ask what is next,” says the chief executive of the Irish FA. “We have been relentless in terms of bringing this tournament here. Belfast deserves it, Northern Ireland deserves it. It will be fabulous as and when it happens.”

Nelson seemingly found himself in an invidious position as the UK and Republic of Ireland bid for these finals. At that time, as now, Northern Ireland did not have a stadium which met Uefa’s 30,000-capacity criteria. Key to Belfast’s role is the complete rebuild of Casement Park, a derelict Gaelic games ground in west Belfast.

Related: Euro 2028: unfinished stadiums form part of UK and Ireland bid

Last Monday morning, the gates of Casement swung open as ground clearance work got under way. Within 24 hours, the Irish government had committed what Nelson deems a “very significant and symbolic” €50m (£42.8m) to the project. This scheme, dogged by controversy and negative publicity, suddenly has a tailwind.

“The fact is Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK and we were clear from day one that this was a UK-wide bid,” Nelson adds. “It wasn’t GB, it was the United Kingdom. We had a common cause, we believed we were stronger together in terms of the bid and it has been a great partnership so far.

“We were adamant we weren’t just here for the ride. We saw this as an opportunity to change the face of Northern Ireland. Sport makes such a difference, football is the biggest sport in the world and if we can bring part of what is the third biggest sports tournament in the world to Belfast … imagine the changes that could make. So it was never a hard sell to go in and bat every single day for Northern Ireland.

“When you see something, you start to believe it. The start of the clearance work at Casement is very good news for the GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association], very good news for the bid. There is still a long way to go and more hurdles to be cleared but it was a great moment.”

Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s first minister, has heralded Casement as a “flagship project that is long overdue”. The Democratic Unionist Party has been far more circumspect on Casement’s fate; aware, no doubt, of the reluctance of their voting base to accept football in a Gaelic stadium. Fans have made their disquiet clear over this at Northern Ireland matches. Nelson is unmoved. “Football has been played at Croke Park, rugby has been played at Croke Park, Ulster Rugby went to play in Cavan recently,” he says. “There is a lot more mixing than people might think.

“If we bring the games to Belfast it will make a huge difference to our society, our people and our outlook. We – and I don’t mean the Irish FA, I mean the 1.9m public of Northern Ireland – will be able to say afterwards ‘we helped deliver that’. Northern Ireland will be able to say, we are not what you think we used to be.

“People have a right to protest. They have a right to express their feelings. We have always had a close relationship with supporters, we meet the clubs on a regular basis. We clearly have different views on this at this point but we keep those relationships open and positive.”

The final two paragraphs of the ‘Safeguarding the Union’ paper, which was integral to the Northern Ireland executive’s recent return to office, turned heads. Under “supporting sporting and cultural links” came items only relating to football and in particular the “success of the Euro 28 bid”. Still, obvious funding questions remain as the clock ticks.

In 2011, £61m was set aside for each of Belfast’s three main football, Gaelic and rugby grounds. As Windsor Park and Ravenhill were modernised, Casement sat untouched amid planning protest which has since been quelled. Chris Heaton-Harris, Northern Ireland’s secretary of state, has said the UK government will offer funding but the overall Casement bill is widely estimated to now be close to £200m.

Arguably of more interest – and potential conflict – is the Irish FA’s insistence that £36m of sub-regional funding left over from Windsor Park’s redevelopment, always intended to fund local football stadia, should now be boosted to £120m. Northern Ireland was never covered by the Taylor Report, with its league grounds generally in need of major upgrade. “That’s a legacy we want to fight for,” Nelson insists. “A football tournament should have a football legacy and one for many, many years. We want that by way of the grounds we are able to modernise by bringing the Euros here.

“I think the intention of all partners is that Casement will be built in time for the Euros. We would expect a legacy for football at the same time.”

Three decades will have passed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement at the opening match of Euro 2028. Northern Ireland do not want to look on as close neighbours stage a party. “It is not about five games of football or whatever it may be,” Nelson adds. “It is about what we can do for the country through this. To me, it’s potentially one of the most seminal moments of the past 30 years. It is a huge opportunity.”