herald

Sunday 19 November 2017

New Lansdowne's a glimmer of hope

IF YOU stand high up in the top tier of the new Lansdowne Road and cast an eye across the city, you'll see the carcasses of unfinished NAMA-bound projects littering the landscape and realise how lucky the IRFU and FAI are to reach the finishing line.

Today is the unveiling of the last big Celtic Tiger project. The new Lansdowne Road stands at the epicentre of D4 acreage which was, briefly, the most expensive on planet earth, and is now a wasteland of foreclosure and bad debt.

Fortunately, the IRFU chose to hold onto their plot and build again. As a result, a shiny new stadium stands waiting to be christened and a decade-long saga can be put to bed.

The development of big sports venues in Ireland has always been troublesome and, in the case of Lansdowne Road, the work only became certain at the moment John O'Donoghue committed €191m of taxpayers’ money to fund it. Given the history of false starts, delays and political interference in the whole area of stadium development, the decision could easily have been long-fingered for another year or two.

In the circumstances we face today, no Government would commit €191m to a football stadium, no matter how urgent the need.

But the financial promise O'Donoghue made meant that decades of paper mache models built to display a few very practical new venue ideas and others involving property plays and pure ego could finally be consigned to the bin.

There was Neilstown, Sonas, eircom Park, the Bertie Bowl and London billionaire Patrick Nally's offer of a free stadium. They came and went in an orgy of finger food and backslapping. Plenty of blarney but no bricks and mortar. The problem was always baggage.

Each project came with a container load of backroom manoeuvrings by big business and the consequential attention of our great politicians. Any one of the stadium plans mentioned above would have been great and cost a lot less than the €411m needed to turn Lansdowne Road into a serviceable venue for the future.

Well, all of them but the Bertie Bowl. The Abbotstown project looked like a good idea at the start but began to unravel when the numbers ratcheted up towards £1bn.

With hindsight and given the hole the nation is in now, that sounds quite reasonable, but the PDs dug in their heels on the Bertie Bowl and that was the end of that.

The wind now whistles across largely empty acres out in Abbotstown, a handy metaphor for the attitude of successive Governments to sports funding.

Of course, one positive spin-off of Bertie Ahern's long flirtation with the concept of a mega-stadium on the M50 was the flow of funds into the FAI which was promised and delivered once Bernard O'Byrne's eircom Park was abandoned. When the Bertie Bowl went to the wall, the money kept coming and the only show in town was Lansdowne Road.

The cash grant was front-loaded, which meant that the €191m was quickly turned into bricks, steel and glass – a fortunate part of the process which guaranteed that it couldn't be clawed back.

Since planning was granted, the site has been a hive of activity. The clank of cranes and kango hammers sounded a requiem for the Celtic Tiger. The stadium has been delivered on time and, today, the great and the good showed up for a spot of ribbon cutting and medals – a positive news story in an ocean of dire tidings.

Which is fair enough. We're overdosing on doom and, there's no doubt, the stadium is fantastic. After a spell with the GAA at Croke Park, it will be good to get back to a place still redolent with great memories, despite the fact that the old bones have been buried and a brand new structure put in their place.

As ever, though, it's not as simple as that.

Many questions have been asked about the FAI's ability to meet the cost of borrowing as a result of the timing of the launch of their Vantage Club 10 scheme in late 2008 when banks were on the point of collapse.

“We have the finance in place to pay our bills when we need to pay them but we still have almost two years until our first game, which won't be until August 2010,” said FAI CEO John Delaney in July 2008 at the FAI AGM in Waterford.

There is very little hard information available on the exact number of tickets sold and the amount of borrowing the FAI will require to fund their part of the redevelopment cost, but it will be substantial. The sale of Vantage Club tickets is crucial to reducing debt to a minimum. Everything the FAI has said since the Vantage Club was launched indicates total confidence that sales targets will be met and everyone involved in the project in Abbotstown understands how serious it would be if the numbers fall short.

Lansdowne Road will be a financial engine, of that there is no doubt, and a wonderful facility for Irish sports fans, but like any fantastic new home in these doom-laden days, a big mortgage can be a back-breaker.

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