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Armagh AC ‘stand up for sport, recreation and wellbeing’ with #ATrackForArmagh campaign

'The local government officials have told us they support the construction of a track as they see the economic and social benefits it would bring to the area'

Fearghal Delaney, far left and Mark McKeown second from right

After several false dawns and constantly dashed hopes, a tenacious committee of representatives from Armagh Athletic Club (AC) are once again on a mission to build a state-of the-art athletics track in the city, despite being “starved of provision for many decades”.

Another record breaking year of road racing in the city sparked the latest campaign.

With approximately 1,100 junior entries for the 2024 International Road Race alone, the need for adequate training space has never been more apparent.

Club Secretary, Mark McKeown, speaking to Armagh I, said: “Armagh Athletic Club has long been campaigning for adequate athletic provision for what feels like an eternity. However, now is the time for our club to stand up for sport, recreation and wellbeing in the region.

“The hopes of our club members and many thousands of rate payers were dashed when the long promised sports village was shelved a couple of years ago. It was hoped that an athletics track was to be provided at that facility, but sadly funding and land acquisition proved a major stumbling block.

“From talking to older members of the club, there had been preliminary discussions many years ago on a possible athletics track location at Milford Playing Fields but again hopes were dashed on this proposal.

The International Road Race organisers believe that the city, which hosts a “world-class athletic event”, should be the training ground of future world-class athletes.

Club Chairperson, Fearghal Delaney: “A ‘Track for Armagh’, could be the catalyst for even more sporting success for Armagh and beyond with the possibility of attracting competition and tourism for the Borough.

“The enthusiasm shown by those children [junior Road Race participants] is an amazing sight to see each year but, unfortunately when these races are over these children have nowhere dedicated to improving them as runners.

“The talent we have in the Armagh area runs very deep. Some of these children could be Olympians one day if they are nurtured properly. Just look at the recent world swimming gold medals won by local lad Daniel Wiffen in Doha.

“The athletic talent is here, it’s our job as leaders within the clubs, schools and government to make sure they get the best chance possible to show the world what they are capable of.”

To train world class athletes, one could argue that the facilities need to be of a world-class standard.

And, Fearghal agrees: “I’m a big believer that if something is worth doing it’s worth doing right. Armagh City has been a hub for athletics dating back 150 years and there is a record of a track being sought by the old Armagh Harriers Athletic Club back in 1891. The Armagh area is an historic place for athletics in Ulster and Ireland.

“We feel that the track needs to be an eight lane track to ensure there can be Ulster, All-Ireland and International meeting held here. This would be a huge boost to the city and the surrounding areas both economically and socially.

“The ABC council area is the only council area in Northern Ireland that does not have a fit-for-purpose athletics track. When a track is built it needs to be one for the city to be proud of. Each year in February the local hotel and B&B rooms are filled to capacity for the International Road Races. We want this to be the case for events all year round.”

Armagh Athletic Club at a track night at St Colman’s track in Newry.

Whilst a track would certainly aid ambition, it is also becoming an absolute necessity given Armagh AC’s ever increasing numbers.

Fearghal continued: “Armagh AC has over 120 members (60 seniors and 60 juniors). At present the seniors train mainly on the open roads around the city. For speed sessions we have to use roads near St Luke’s, Milford, Killuney and Mullinure. These roads are all open to traffic and laden with obstructions. In the dark winter evenings this is particularly dangerous.

“The junior section of the club are indebted to St Catherine’s College who permit the young members to train on their gravel hockey pitches. Although this is a welcome facility for the runners, it is not fit for purpose. There are no toilet facilities for the young ones, falls on the gravel have led to cuts and grazes and the gravel can often become waterlogged with training having to be called off at the last minute on a frequent basis. Lighting is also a big issue.

“But it’s not just Armagh AC that have runners on the roads. If you drive through Armagh and the surrounding towns and villages any day or night of the week you will see runners everywhere. They are out training for marathons or 10k’s or simply just getting some air and clearing their heads from a long day at work. All these runners need a safe place to train.”

Demand is clear, as is need. But as Fearghal says: “As with most things the main stumbling block has always been funding.

“We understand that there are many, many projects in the area that require the finite funds available but the area has been waiting for an athletics track for 150 years and there are more runners now than ever. Apart from that we haven’t met much resistance at all.

“The local government officials have told us they support the construction of a track as they see the economic and social benefits it would bring to the area.

“The other sporting bodies in the area representing gaelic games, rugby etc have also supported our case as they know the benefits the track would bring to their members. At present these sports are actually travelling to Tyrone, Belfast or Clones to train on athletics tracks as they get ready for their own seasons. Every sport in the area would benefit from an athletics track.

“The local schools have also been very supportive as they know how important exercise is to their students. The track would be available for all the local schools to train on or even hold their school sports days each year.

The club are confident that finance can – and will – be sourced. The next hurdle is construction. However, a strategy has been devised for this too.

Fearghal said: “The Armagh City area is in desperate need of new sporting facilities with the current Orchard Leisure Centre ageing and becoming unfit for the needs of the community. Plans are in place for new facilities and what we need to make sure is that any plans for these new facilities includes an eight-lane athletics track.

“Now is the time to get the track built when the other facilities are being built. If we miss this opportunity a track may never be built in the area. So we need the local sporting clubs and schools to actively support the proposal for the track when plans for any new facilities are being drawn up.”

“At Armagh AC we feel there has never been more positive momentum for the construction of a track in Armagh City as there is right now. Armagh City is a fantastic place to live, work and play. We have some of the best sports men and women on this island in this area. What we don’t have are the facilities to allow these athletes take the next step on their journey’s to becoming great.

Sport is booming across the borough and beyond and the club are convinced that a new facility will be to the betterment of the local community at large.

Continued Fearghal: “The Armagh men’s and ladies Gaelic football teams are back at the top of their sports, the Armagh Rugby Club is thriving at junior and senior levels, Armagh Camogie is in a great place with local clubs playing in All-Ireland Finals, we have All-Ireland champions just down the road in Cullyhanna, hockey participation numbers are up, we have a strong triathlon club in the city, local soccer clubs are as strong as ever. Add to this the cricket, road bowls and all the other sports being played in the Armagh area and you have a large group of high performing athletes that would benefit from a new athletics track.

“With the backing of all of these groups and the local schools we feel the decision makers will have to see that a track is a necessity for Armagh.”

Members of the public are welcome to get involved can make a difference just by helping to spread awareness: “We’ve rolled out our campaign using the strap line, ‘#ATrackForArmagh’ and we hope to go out to local councillors, and MLAs, as well as local sporting organisations who would also benefit from having an athletics track in the region,” said Mark.

“We’d be really pleased if all local sports clubs could use the #ATrackForArmagh in any social media posts.”

Reluctant to see anymore plans or time wasted, the club are set on pushing forward until their vision becomes a reality.

Mark added: “We simply keep going with our campaign for dedicated athletics provision in the Borough.

“Our children, regardless of what sport they play, depend on this in order to try and fulfil their potential and we need everyone in the Borough to get behind the campaign for a state of the art facility for the region.”

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