Six months after being cleared of domestic abuse, ex-United star Ryan Giggs found himself in the unlikely role of referee at a grassroots kids tournament in West Belfast this month.
Giggs had been in Northern Ireland for an onstage interview at the Ulster Hall reflecting on his career at Manchester United and as Wales’ boss.
The tournament was hosted by Newhill FC in a bid to increase exposure to the grassroots scene in Northern Ireland.
Event organiser, Michael McQuade, managed to use his connections with the Foundation 92 charity to secure Giggs’ presence:
“I am a Manchester United fan, and to be honest with you, it felt like Christmas.” said McQuade.
“I was probably more excited than half the kids taking part in it. To have him in our backyard in West Belfast was incredible. The buzz around the whole community and social media was incredible. People would stop our team in the shops and ask to come. It was an amazing reaction.”
The tournament known as the McStravick Cup, featured 20 teams from across the country and saw buses of children travel over 30 miles to compete.
Giggs was handed the referee’s whistle for the final between Newell FC and Larne FC, in what may be his first appearance on a football pitch since stepping down from the Wales manager job.
McQuade says he’s struggled to garner interest in the region’s grassroots scene, which has struggled since the pandemic.
“We rely heavily on grants, funding, and the generosity of the community, so we decided to raise much-needed funds for the club by creating the event. It is our 50th anniversary of the club this year, and we are desperately working towards trying to get our own facilities and our own pitch” said McQuade.
Helen, mum to one of the kids involved, added:
“The response has been great, as it showcases Northern Ireland football to the world. The response online has been fantastic. The kids have had such a great time overall. In the final, Ryan refereed well and fair. It’s safe to say the poor man got mobbed in the end for selfies and autographs.”
A report in 2022 called The Price to Play asked over 1000 parents of grassroots footballers how their football had been impacted. It discovered that seven percent of grassroots clubs had closed during the pandemic, leaving many kids without a team.
McQuade says Giggs’ visit will already caused a big response within the community:
“After the tournament, we saw loads of people contacting the club and posting on our social media. Complimenting how the tournament has been run. It has been so important from a local standpoint to shine a light on the grassroots scene, and Ryan helped with that. He has probably been the biggest sporting star to ever get involved at this level in the local communities.”
The star’s visit has drawn huge attention to a variety of clubs in the area and showcases the benefit of big stars getting involved in the local scene.
No matter the star, the grassroots community could do with more stars showing appreciation for where all football begins.