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Ballymacash Sports Academy: From bonfire site to brilliant football that brings people together

Case study

14th April 2023
Co-op development
Ballymacash Sports Academy

When the members of a local football club formed a community benefit society, they were able to transform a grass pitch into a first-class facility that’s now enjoyed by all sections of the community… 

The Bluebell football pitch in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, has been home to Ballymacash Rangers Football Club for decades. It was originally just a grass pitch with a portakabin changing room.

“It wasn’t much to look at. People unfairly looked down on the club members and the team because it’s based in a working class, loyalist housing estate. But we recognised the potential of the site. So in 2017 we formed the Ballymacash Sports Academy to become a vehicle to redevelop it,” said Academy Manager Neil Woolsey.

Neil had previously encountered a community owned football club during his travels around Scotland – and he knew a community benefit society would be the best business model for the academy.

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The more we considered a community benefit society, the more we thought it would be a great move for community buy-in – both in terms of user numbers and financial investment.
– Neil Woolsey, Ballymacash Sports Academy Manager

In 2018, the Ballymacash Sports Academy launched a community share offer with the aim of raising capital to deliver a brand-new full size floodlit 3G pitch, the first and only in Lisburn City.

“We knew we’d be able to run more programmes for the community with the pitch – and open it up for many more different users. It would be an income generator as well.”

The share offer raised £112,500 from 300 members and Neil and his colleagues set about achieving their goal. They realised they had a strip of land with no sporting use, so used it to create community allotments.

“We were told there’s a 100-year waiting list to get an allotment in Lisburn. So, we gave plots to various groups, including young local disabled people who have created a social enterprise supplying vegetables and herbs to local cafes.”

Aerial view of the Ballymacash Sports Academy pitch
The re-developed Bluebell football pitch

A second share offer in 2022 raised another £30,000 from 100 members. To launch the offer, the academy accessed Business Support for Co-ops from Co-operatives UK in partnership with The Co-operative Bank.

“They gave us the funding for co-op development expert Tiziana O’Hara to work on our share offer document and ensure it met the Community Shares Standard Mark,” Neil explained.

“Tiziana is fantastic. She did a great job. It was critical for us to get the Standard Mark. It’s a guarantee of a high-quality share offer. We couldn’t have launched the campaign without it. So, it was a great relief to get it.”

As part of the share offer, the academy sold ‘junior shares packages’ for children, which their parents maintain until they are 16. The junior members received a share certificate, a football and a soccer camp coaching session.

It’s given them a sense of pride and responsibility, as Neil explained: “There are two wee lads who are down here every day and I’ve seen them going around picking up rubbish, because the feeling they’ve got of a wee bit of ownership.”

Since 2018, the academy has gone from strength to strength. There are now four full and part-time employees. The new pitch and spectator stands have been installed – and the facility is used by lots of different people in the community.  

The local school use it for training and matches for free, and it’s still home to Ballymacash Rangers. “It’s allowed the team to gain promotion into the Irish Football League. We’re top of the league and in contention to challenge for another promotion,” said Neil.  

Lisburn Ladies also use the facility as their home ground, where they run their own youth programme. It’s enabled them to get into the premier division of women’s football in Northern Ireland.

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We’ve also got a programme of small-sided games for around 200 children aged nine to 12. They’re the best days of the week, seeing so many kids running around, enjoying themselves.
– Neil Woolsey

“A group of over 50s guys got together and started hiring the pitch on Friday nights. It began with six people and now it’s 35 people, every Friday night.

“During the day we’ve got after school clubs – a range of coaches come and do one-to-one sessions with the kids. And on Saturday evenings, we run twilight football to get kids off street corners and into supervised play. We have around 70 children coming to that.”

The academy’s next step is to do away with the portakabin and construct a bricks and mortar building which should be ready for use by spring 2024.

“Lisburn is a city of 140,000 people and this was the first full sized 3G pitch in the town. It’s changed the whole community. Before, it was a bonfire site. There was a stigma about it. People would call it a drinking den.

“Now, we have all sectors of the community coming to it – Protestant, Catholic, Polish, Romanian, Fijian – and a lot of the LGBTQ community. It’s been a real positive for the community and the building will be the icing on the cake.”

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