WAKEHURST Football Club this week re-iterated its plea for Ballymena Borough Council to bring an end to the club’s three-year ‘exile’ from Ballymena.
The local club, who play in Belfast Telegraph Championship Two - the third highest-ranked league in Northern Ireland and a spin-off of the old ‘B’ Division - have spent the past three seasons playing home games in Castledawson, due to a lack of a suitable standard of venue in their home borough.
At that time, the Irish Football Association upgraded its criteria meaning that Championship clubs’ home venues had to provide a covered area for a minimum of 200 spectators, including at least 100 seats.
That brought to an end Wakehurst’s tenure at the second pitch at the Showgrounds (now the 3G surface) with Ballymena Borough Council having already committed significant financial investment in the Warden Street complex’s main arena at that time.
Wakehurst’s only option was to commit to a mandatory three-year ground-sharing initiative with another club whose facilities did meet the criteria.
Wakehurst agreed to share with Moyola Park, although initially, the Ballymena club ground-shared with Tobermore United for a number of months, while work on Moyola’s state-of-the-art Mill Meadow complex was completed.
At that time, Ballymena councillors expressed their intention to do their utmost to ensure that Wakehurst would be back at a suitable base in Ballymena at the end of the three years.
That period has now expired and with no such venue immediately available, the club faces the prospect of having to enter into another ground-sharing agreement if they are to maintain their status as a Championship club.
“At a time when youth, junior and intermediate football are all flourishing in Ballymena, on the back of significant investment in facilities, we feel that Wakehurst’s role within local football is being overlooked,” club chairman Billy Erwin told Times Sport.
“We’re not here to compete with Ballymena United in terms of players, finance or structure, but there is certainly no reason why a borough with a population of 60,000 should not be able to sustain a senior club and one playing at the highest possible level of intermediate football.
“Not all the local players who come through Ballymena United necessarily make the grade at first team level, but we are ideally placed to enable them to play at the next highest level. Similarly, there are also players within junior or intermediate football locally who might want to aspire to play at a higher standard of football - again, we fill that gap.
“Our squad is entirely locally-based and many of them have come through our formal link-up with what used to be known as Demesne Strollers and Demesne Star, both of whom now play under the Wakehurst umbrella.
“We have greatly strengthened our relationship with Ballymena United in recent seasons, particularly that between our manager Ian Gregg and former Ballymena manager Roy Walker, which led to a situation where we were able to facilitate loan deals for young United players, in order to give them first team experience at a high level. This is something that Ian is keen to continue with current Ballymena boss Glenn Ferguson.
“We have also enjoyed a good relationship with Ballymena Borough Council - the only frustration has been the length of time it has taken to find a resolution to our situation.
“It’s surprising the number of people, even locally, who are surprised when they find out we are playing in the same division as the likes of Dundela and Ballyclare Comrades - people still tend to associate the name of Wakehurst with its successful history in junior and Amateur League football, but the club and its committee has been extremely pro-active and progressive in recent years, to the extent where we are competing in the third highest level of football in Northern Ireland and we’re still always looking to progress.
“Obviously, there is significant financial outlay in playing ‘home’ games in Castledawson in terms of referees’ and assistant referees’ fees, ground rental charges and the expense of getting Ballymena-based players to and from there - against that, we don’t get anywhere near as many Ballymena people travelling to watch our games as when we played at the Showgrounds.
“We are in a very fortunate position that we have a group of players who don’t demand any wages - if we were paying players we would not survive financially.
“We have spoken to a number of local councillors and politicians with regard to our situation - Paul Frew MLA has been particularly supportive - and we are trying to come up with a solution as to a ground in Ballymena which meets the criteria necessary to play in the Championship,” added Billy.
The search for a ground will undoubtedly be one of the items under discussion at the club’s annual dinner in the Tullyglass House Hotel this Friday night, at which Mr Frew will be among the guests.