The Irish Football Association’s hosting of the 2021 UEFA Super Cup has been 10 years in the making.
However, the person tasked with delivering the project, Peter Gilpin, is confident the event at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park will prove to have been well worth the wait.
The journey to the showpiece European club match being staged in Belfast this week effectively began when the Irish FA, government partners, Linfield FC and Northern Ireland Football League agreed to redevelop the stadium back in 2011.
It cost around £38m to revamp the venue between 2014 and 2016, with the Government contributing the bulk of the money, and the project delivered a compact world class stadium with an 18,500 capacity.
Since then the Irish FA has successfully delivered the UEFA Women’s Under-19 Championship, numerous international matches and cup finals plus a high profile Carl Frampton boxing bout at the venue.
The UEFA Men’s Under-19 Championship was meant to have been hosted by the association last year but it was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
And that cancellation paved the way for Peter Gilpin (below) to take on the role of Project Leader for the 2021 UEFA Super Cup, which will be the most prestigious club game ever hosted in Northern Ireland.
Peter had previously been tasked with delivering the Men’s U19 tournament on the association’s behalf but switched his focus to Super Cup back in October when the championship was officially shelved. However, the association will be hosting the U19 tournament in 2024 instead.
He is quick to praise his predecessor in the role, the late Craig Stanfield, for preparing and submitting the association’s bid to host the meeting of the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League winners. The Irish FA bid was submitted in early 2019 and the UEFA Executive Committee announced in September that year that the Irish FA had secured the hosting rights.
Peter said Craig was meticulous with his preparations and had developed relationships with key people inside and outside UEFA prior to his untimely death at the start of last year. And Craig kick-started the project when he hosted a site visit for UEFA in November 2019 which covered stadium operations, city operations and fan mobility among other things.
The Project Leader is the main point of contact with UEFA for all things required for the hosting of the big match.
With Covid rife when he took on the role Peter had to be adaptable. Site visits were held with UEFA via Microsoft Teams. A detailed 3D floor plan of the stadium, featuring all of its nooks and crannies, was produced so the planning on what was needed where could begin.
Peter has a team of dedicated Irish FA staff who have helped bring it all together, not least Super Cup Project Assistant Karen Dunne, who has worked alongside him tirelessly since switching her attention from the U19 tournament project.
It’s a very special feeling to be able to put on such a big game and I have no doubt it will be a memorable occasion
Some of his squad have temporarily put their normal jobs on hold to concentrate on delivering Super Cup.
Glenda Dines, usually an International Teams Administrator, has been working on fan travel and team travel, while Leanne McCready, normally the association’s Club Licensing and Facilities Officer, has sourced hotels and training venues for Chelsea and Villarreal.
In addition Stephen Grange, National Security and Integrity Officer at the Irish FA, has been dealing with various security issues and Anita Bayne and Judith White, Head of Stadium Operations and Stadium Operations Officer respectively, have been preparing the stadium, looking after everything from pitch renovations and the installation of new 3G carpet around the pitch to preparing the changing rooms, medical rooms and much more.
And Sean Murphy, the association’s Chief Operations Officer, has provided support and help at every turn, according to Peter.
“It has been one big team effort in association with UEFA,” he pointed out.
And in the middle of it all - in mid-July - Peter and his wife Lauren welcomed their second child into the world, a wee girl called Betsy, a sister for Penny.
“I could not do this role without support from home. My wife has been great and so have my parents and in-laws,” he revealed.
Belfast City Council has been a solid partner on the project, he said, whether in an advisory capacity or agreeing to dress the city with Super Cup branding, helping to set up fan meeting points or hosting the official pre-match dinner at the City Hall.
It has also allowed UEFA to transform Windsor Way, which acts as the entrance to Olympia Leisure Centre from Boucher Road, with a plethora of Super Cup branding and freed up car parking spaces at the leisure centre for people involved with the showpiece game.
And it has been lighting up buildings across the city, including the majestic City Hall, to welcome the Super Cup to the city.
UEFA have had people on the ground in Belfast since March to help deliver the match and in recent days more than 100 UEFA staff have arrived to fine-tune everything. The personnel involved are used to putting on big matches around Europe.
The mammoth operation has seen a large temporary building being erected at Midgley Park beside the stadium. It is being used for hospitality and as an accreditation centre.
And host broadcaster BT Sport, which will be beaming the game around the world, has been given extra room in which to operate after the outside broadcasting (OB) compound was extended beyond its normal footprint to include a neighbouring service yard owned by Translink, which has also been a key partner when it comes to travel.
“A lot of hard work has gone into this project and we have had to deal with a lot of unknowns, such as the number of fans that would be allowed in. We have worked closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to enable people to get to the game and it’s great that we can welcome 13,000 fans to watch Chelsea and Villarreal in action. The priority now is getting everyone into the ground safely and home safely,” he said.
“It’s a very special feeling to be able to put on such a big game and I have no doubt it will be a memorable occasion,” the Project Leader added.