The Áras Chiaráin clubhouse at Athlone GAA's Páirc Chiaráin home.

Athlone GAA must tackle stand project - club chairman

Athlone GAA club has confirmed its intention to build a suitable stand at their Páirc Chiaráin base when financial resources are available to do so.

The Athlone GAA strategic plan, launched earlier this year, acknowledges that the club’s facilities for spectators “are now dated and no longer fit for purpose”.

The strategic plan could be viewed as a root and branch review of how the club runs its affairs, and also a call to arms in order to bring about change. The plan is entitled ‘2020 Vision’, the name coming from the fact that most of the work on compiling it was carried out last year.

A motion was passed at the club’s 2019 AGM to prepare a five-year strategic plan, and a steering committee was duly formed. The steering committee consisted of the following members: John Connellan, Eoin Jordan, Padraig O’Rourke, Sheila Buckley-Byrne, Paul Connellan, Elizabeth Stuart Trainor, Joe Fallon, Darren Magee, Fiachra McLoughlin, Brian Gunning, Monsignor John Roche and Senator Micheál Carrigy.

Athlone still leads the roll of honour for Westmeath senior football titles, but their last championship came back in 1998 and the club hasn’t contested a senior final since 2003. And there is ongoing concern over how the club is struggling to transfer underage promise into senior progress.

The strategic plan highlighted a number of action areas, including coaching & games development (encompassing improved underage structures and coach education) and developing club facilities.

In terms of coaching, one of the club’s objectives is to appoint a dedicated Games Development Officer (GDO) or Games Promotion Officer (GPO), who would be suitably qualified in such areas as coach education and strength & conditioning.

The ‘2020 Vision’ strategic plan report noted that the facilities were “ahead of their time when constructed”, but called for the club to investigate the feasibility of upgrading its grounds.

Highlighting the “fantastic playing facilities” at Páirc Chiaráin, Athlone GAA chairman Fergal O’Toole said: “We have three fully floodlit championship standard pitches. We have our own gym. We have everything going for us.”

However, the construction of a suitable stand at Páirc Chiaráin is something the club must tackle in the coming years, Fergal insisted.

“There were certain projects in my head when I went forward for chairmanship - the gym was one of them, it’s almost finished, with some aspects to be finalised. But a stand is one of the projects that has to be taken on at Páirc Chiaráin. You have to make it attractive for young people,” he told the Westmeath Independent.

“When people drive past Páirc Chiaráin, you’d like them to say ‘Wow, that’s a serious facility in there, I’d like my kids to be in there’. Getting a stand would be a huge boost, but it is big money.

“All Athlone really is missing is a stand. It’s part of the ongoing debate we’re trying to have with the Westmeath County Board,” Fergal continued.

“In time we will put up a stand, that’s certainly the aim. But if you’re not going to put up a stand, you have to put up a proper one. You can’t just put up a corrugated tin shed and call it a stand. We want to put up a proper stand that would integrate with the clubhouse.

“Westmeath, in a way have to help us and, in turn, that will help Westmeath. It’s a circle and we all have to be on the one page.

“You’re trying to explain to the county board that Athlone is losing the race with other sports when it comes to attracting kids. Gaelic football is the third sport in Athlone, whether people like to hear that or not.

“You have to help us out. We’ve made massive strides, with the third pitch and the gym, but we need help. We’re not looking for huge amounts.

“If things are not happening in the clubs, they’re not going to happen for county teams. We can’t keep doing the same things year in, year out, and expect different results,” said Fergal.

There is a strong feeling that an improvement in facilities for spectators would lead to Athlone hosting more matches and this would help to promote Gaelic games in the area.

The presence of the Áras Chiaráin clubhouse presents some challenges in terms of building a stand, but Fergal insists that such obstacles can be overcome and that finance is the major stumbling block.

“We’ve had architects look at it, and that wouldn’t be a problem. It would be a different style of stand, it would be unique and that would have its advantages.”

However, Fergal and club officials are acutely aware of the financial challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s very, very hard to ask people for money at the moment,” he said.

Stating that “fundraising is a nightmare for clubs” at present, Fergal added: “You run your Lotto and hope for the best. What else can you do?”

At inter-county level, the lack of a Centre of Excellence for county teams is regularly highlighted as something which is holding back Westmeath GAA.

Pointing out that many players now playing for Westmeath teams are not living in the county, Fergal believes Athlone’s central location and good transport links would make it an ideal place for a Centre of Excellence.

On a wider issue, the financial gap between Westmeath and leading counties like Dublin and Kerry “is getting wider and wider” said Fergal, adding that “it doesn’t appear that it’s going to close in the near future”.

And while Fergal fully accepts that TEG Cusack Park needs the significant upgrade which the Westmeath County Board is planning, he hopes that other projects won’t lose out on funding as a result.

In addition to help from the county board, Athlone GAA club is seeking help from the Leinster Council and Croke Park.

“We’re looking for financial help and we’re also looking for guidance in relation to GPOs and things like that,” Fergal added.

More from this Topic