The Football Association of Ireland (FAI ) paid Westmeath the ultimate compliment when it sent its CEO John Delaney to the county council’s monthly meeting last Monday to update the members on the state of soccer in the county at the moment.
With its own development officers for the game, Westmeath has been one of the beneficiaries of an FAI and local authority co-funded initiative that has seen an increase in these nationally from two in 1997 to 43 this year.
It was also revealed that the county now has 334 qualified coaches and 100 referees, with three of these on a League of Ireland panel.
Mr Delaney explained the main aim of the FAI was “to use soccer as a social tool, to fight obesity, to involve girls in sport, and for getting kids away from Playstations”.
“Not everybody can play for Ireland but everybody has the right to play, to achieve their maximum potential, irrespective of what level that is,” he said.
To help achieve this, he told the councillors there are now five summer schools in Westmeath - with one exclusively for goalkeeping - looking after 500 children this year.
At primary school level, there are 37 schools playing in the county, with 39 boys’ and 23 girls’ teams made up of 503 children from fifth and sixth classes.
Under its futsal (indoor-style football played outside ) programme in three estates in Westmeath - Ashdale in Athlone, and Grange and Dalton Park in Mullingar - there are now 170 children taking part in organised leagues, while its after-school programme is “one of the biggest in the country” taking care of 80 children.
He said that “going into housing estates and bringing tough kids off the streets” was one avenue where the FAI was making a big diffference and cited one programme in Ballymun where reported anti-social activity dropped from 86 incidents to 11 during its Friday night leagues in the estate.
At the moment there are 450,000 registered participants in Ireland, with even 2,500 in that remotest of soccer outposts, Kerry.
In the Athlone Schoolboy League there are now 1,300 players, whilst in the Midland League there were 2,500 players. Westmeath also has 160 players of all ages on the elite programme.
Mr Delaney specifically complimented the Castlepollard club which is now catering for 30 teams, an astounding fact for this reporter who, as a 13-year-old fan, watched with some bemusement in the winter of 1979 as the team showered at a Rathowen street pump in full view of all Dublin-Sligo traffic.