Monday 21 October 2019

'What about the future for these kids and the value sport will bring to their lives - is anyone thinking about them?'

Children's football club could be made homeless to make room for South Dublin County Council social housing

Former Shamrock Rovers player and manager Pat Byrne with his grandchildren Chloe Byrne and Matthew Byrne and their Knocklyon United clubmates Nathan Walshe and James Walshe (6) at Ballycullen Park recently. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Former Shamrock Rovers player and manager Pat Byrne with his grandchildren Chloe Byrne and Matthew Byrne and their Knocklyon United clubmates Nathan Walshe and James Walshe (6) at Ballycullen Park recently. Photo: Colin O’Riordan

Marie Crowe

At a busy intersection in south Dublin, children and parents wait patiently to cross the road. School is still in session but the summer holidays are fast approaching.

The purr from the cars on the nearby M50 is audible but it doesn't drown out the excited squeals of the children when they spot the row of flags flying high at Knocklyon United soccer club across the road.

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It's an exciting week in the club's calendar, the annual mini world cup competition that sees over 400 kids from the area descend on the Ballycullen pitches, each hoping to emulate their heroes and be crowned champions.

The smell from the barbecue coupled with the music reverberating from the clubhouse creates a festival atmosphere. The place is buzzing as kids of all ages, dressed head to toe in varying football kits, run in to join their team-mates. It's joy in its purest form.

Volunteers wearing the obligatory yellow vests park cars, guide children to their designated areas and man every pitch, stand, shop and station.

Knocklyon United is a club similar to so many around the country. It is at the centre of a community, a safe place for the 600 kids who play there.

For many of those children it's their favourite place to go.

As well as having a thriving boys' section, they have a blossoming girls' section too. The clubhouse is used by a local men's shed group and many of those men have become volunteers at the club: scouting, coaching, cleaning, ultimately feeling part of something.

On July 6 the club will host a football-for-all tournament, when children with special needs will be given a chance to play matches and have a festival of their own. The club believe in giving everyone the chance to belong.

Two days after that, South Dublin County Council will try to take their football pitches away. Their club is teetering on the edge of decimation. The council's plan is to build 27 units for social housing on the club's main pitch, leaving them with a smaller area unsuitable for football because of its size and its surface. Councillors will vote on the future of Knocklyon United. The council has not offered any alternative site in the area. The facility, as the club knows it, could be no more.

Pat Byrne, former Shamrock Rovers player and manager, is a founding member of the club. In 1984, along with John Mallon and Johnny Bates, he formed the club because there was nowhere for kids in the area to play football. Their colours are green and white, mirroring those of Rovers where Byrne played at the time. His two grandchildren now play for Knocklyon United.

"There has to be a place for children to play," he says. "There is so much development in the area but no one is looking at the bigger picture. What about the future for these kids and the value sport will bring to their lives on so many levels - is anyone thinking about them?

An aerial shot of Ballycullen Park
An aerial shot of Ballycullen Park

"As a club, we've nothing against social housing, we see the need for it and we want kids moving into social housing coming to our club, but this is not the right place for it. There are plenty of other sites close by that can be used.

"I love all sports, but when it comes to soccer we seem to be pushed all the time, we don't get the same opportunities to have our own grounds and pitches as sports like GAA get. We are trying to do something for the kids here, provide something and we don't get the same support from those making the decisions.

"I've had a great life because of football. I love coming up here, seeing the academy and how happy sport can make these children. If the pitches go, how many kids will be lost to sport forever? We hear about the obesity crisis and girls dropping out of sport, now if this happens, they won't have a choice because their club will be gone."

Chairman Donal Skelly has been leading the charge in this battle against the council since it began two years ago. Along with other committee members they have fought tooth and nail to save their pitches.

"This is a worrying time for all sports," said Skelly. "It's the first time South Dublin County Council has gone after an active football pitch. If they are successful it will set a precedent and it could be open season on sports facilities. We have fought this hard and it's been a tough road but if we can safeguard our pitches and stop it happening to others it will be worth it.

"We have over 500 of our smallest kids playing on those pitches every week. They enjoy it and feel safe there.

"We are able to have five, six, seven matches simultaneously playing on our pitches in Ballycullen, so losing that could be catastrophic. If this goes through it can't be overturned. The councillors don't want to object to social housing, and that's understandable, but by taking away sporting facilities they are interfering with the inner workings of a community. Immediately our kids have nowhere to play."

Emma Murphy is a local councillor, one of the 40 who will vote on July 8, and has been supportive of Knocklyon United's plight since the beginning.

"From my own perspective, it's setting a really bad precedent. We have a huge demand for housing but we need housing and planning in the right way," said Murphy.

"The site came up as open space and it's not open space, it's being fully used by the club and it would have a huge impact on the club in terms of the allocation of their pitches at the moment."

Although Murphy has seen the support the club has received and will vote their way on the day, she is still concerned about the outcome.

"I'm nervous, as I would be with any vote. The biggest problem, and it's a problem but it's a positive thing too, is that all 40 councillors get a vote.

"Because I live 150 metres from these pitches, I see the development that's there, I see the 500 to 700 kids go through the gate every week. It's very visible, but it's about showing the other councillors throughout the county that it could happen on their doorstep to another club."

The club and its members are baffled by the council's decision to come after their club and have yet to receive a solid reason as to why the decision was made.

"Twenty-seven houses makes no sense really, it's such a low number when you consider what the sacrifice is, a green space used on a daily basis by a growing community that can't be relocated," said Donal Skelly. "This is not wasteland we are talking about - they are pitches used every single weekend.

"It's a valuable site from a commercial point of view too. Right off the M50. Building 27 units on it makes no sense."

It's been a difficult couple of years for Knocklyon United as they wait in limbo for a final decision. The area of Knocklyon is growing rapidly and they are trying to cater for all their new members as best they can.

"We couldn't plan or move forward with the club but we decided in the last couple of months to just plough on. We opened a new shop in the clubhouse and we re-did all the sockets in the club at a cost of €4,000," he added.

"We need to look after our kids; we have to put them first. There are so many houses being built in this area we have to be able to cater for the numbers and waiting around for the council won't help the kids, so we are getting on with it."

As the mini world cup drew to a close, the young players united to sing a song they penned begging for their pitch to be saved. The seriousness of the situation isn't lost on them. It shouldn't be like this. Children deserve better.

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