These are challenging and difficult times for the Irish FA Football Development Department. Usually we have more than 30 staff active in the community and more than 70,000 people involved in our participation programmes.
Before lockdown more than 14,000 young people played football regularly across Northern Ireland in our McDonald’s football programmes and last year a record 8,447 children attended our Irish FA Foundation Nutty Krust Holiday Camps.
Approximately 40,000 school children were involved in our Department of Education funded sport programmes. Fifty-six schools across the country had completed our Irish FA School Quality Mark and 30 additional schools would have completed the process had the pandemic not slowed us down. Thankfully, we were able to complete our highly successful Translink Schools' Gold Cup with a superb finals day in Antrim.
One hundred and forty one clubs had achieved our Irish FA Foundation club accreditation process and we launched our new People and Clubs online platform.
We had developed and supported more than 500 active referees.
Our U17 and U19 elite girls’ international teams traveled to Turkey for tournaments, with the U19s qualifying for the Euros elite round.
Our senior international women’s team completed a world-class training camp in Spain but unfortunately the pandemic stopped them playing a key qualifying game in April.
More than 6,000 girls were introduced to football through our exciting Irish FA Foundation Electric Ireland Shooting Stars programme.
Our disability football for all programmes were set to reach record numbers with more than 2,000 people playing football regularly across 50 clubs.
So what have we learned from the lockdown experience?
1. Development goes on.
We can still serve the community extremely well remotely, using online technology and platforms such as our free online resources pages that help parents home-school children. We update our resources weekly with videos and activity sheets.
Our People and Clubs online portal allows us to serve clubs in the community to become accredited in lockdown
Using online platforms we can reach our partners, participants and players, providing free skill challenges, online funding webinars and leadership.
Each week we email all our youth football clubs, women’s teams and partners with updates on our ongoing services.
Our Club Community Development Officer, Volunteer Development Officer, Community Relations Officer and Let Them Play Officers remain busy serving the community.
2. Quality is always more important than quantity.
We are focused on developing quality online courses, webinars and resources.
Our Female Football Leadership Programme, Btec at Ashfield High School and part-time degree courses at Ulster University have all evolved so we can educate and empower people remotely.
We have enhanced the quality of our online courses and interaction. Making sure we improve the quality of our services is important and we are working hard to revamp education courses for the future. We may not be able to work directly with as many young people but we can reach and empower thousands of people regularly by working smarter.
Our Education Officers continue to fulfill their commitments to pupils and schools and our peace-funded staff are working with our partners to increase shared learning.
3. Your health really is your wealth.
The health and safety of our staff, volunteers and players remains our top priority.
We are running free Ahead of the Game webinars and providing regular updates about how people can stay healthy.
Our staff have been out in the community delivering food and medicine to the vulnerable.
We also realise that time with loved ones is even more important than football and making sure we maintain that focus in the new normal is perhaps our most important goal yet.