The Unite the Union Champions’ Cup 2021, which will bring together champions from the Northern Irish Football League and the SSE Airtricity League, was launched at the National Stadium at Windsor Park in Belfast on Thursday with the final to be played at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday, December 4.
The Northern Ireland semi-final will see Linfield face Coleraine while 2020 League of Ireland champions Shamrock Rovers will play the runners-up in the 2021 SSE Airtricity Premier Division with the fixture date to be confirmed.
Launching the plans for an expanded 2021 Champions Cup today at Windsor Park, Unite Regional Secretary Jackie Pollock expressed his union’s pride in the initiative and hopes that it would continue to use football as a vehicle to unite communities and address disadvantages.
“The Unite The Union Champions’ Cup promotes Diversity, Equality and Community and it does so through focussing on our common love of the beautiful game that is football,” said Pollock.
“After an unavoidable one-year hiatus due to the pandemic, we are re-launching the Champions’ Cup in an expanded format. This year’s games set for November and December will see the leading teams, north and south play-off before the champions come forward for an all-island final.
“But the Unite the Union Champions’ Cup is about more than just world-class football. The initiative seeks to celebrate our diversity, promote equality and build community – while also providing enjoyment and a positive occasion for all to enjoy.
“I’m very proud that this year again, Unite is providing funding of £50,000 which goes directly into communities and schools in the catchment areas of the teams involved. This money is targeted at improving the lives and opportunities of those in greatest need.”
Vice-Chair of Unite the union’s Irish Executive Therese Maloney spoke at the launch pointing to the recent STEM initiative under the Champions’ Cup launched by the union in catchment schools.
“Over recent months and despite the pandemic, Unite has been working with schools in marginalised communities in the Republic to roll out a new STEM education initiative sponsored by Unite.
“Today we will also be launching this exciting new initiative, combining technology, learning, football and fun, for local schools in the North.
“The unique educational resource we are making available to young people comprises six miniature football pitches together with 15 interactive robots programmed by the learners to perform tasks, such as playing football, helping develop skills in sport, maths, computer programming and coding. My own background is in science, so I am particularly excited by this initiative.
“While we are all looking forward to the prospect of the three football matches ahead of us – we can also recognise the value of the other aspect of the Champions’ Cup. It’s about more than a match – it’s about using football as a means to reach into communities and make a real difference.”
League of Ireland Director Mark Scanlon said: “Our League of Ireland clubs are really looking forward to this expanded Unite the union Champions Cup.
“The COVID-19 pandemic meant we were unable to host the competition in 2020 but the new expanded format is a direct result of the increased interest from our clubs and their desire to play in this competition.
“We are fully committed to expanding our relationship with the Irish Football Association and the Northern Ireland Football League and I know the players and fans from all four clubs will be excited by the return of this Unite The Union Champions Cup and all will do their very best to win it.”
Football Association of Ireland President Gerry McAnaney added: “We are delighted to be here in Belfast today for the launch of the 2021 edition of the Unite the union Champions Cup.
“Our relationship with the Irish Football Association is very important to our Association and this competition further strengthens the bond between our Associations and our Leagues.
“I want to commend everyone involved with today’s launch and in particular everyone from Unite the union whose commitment to and passion for this Cup has been inspirational.
“The cross-community focus is to be applauded and I look forward to another successful Unite the Union Champions Cup campaign and wish all four teams the very best of luck as they compete for this unique title.”
Conrad Kirkwood, Irish FA President said: “This is a really exciting competition and, after a Covid hit year, it’s back and we are delighted about that.
“Its values of diversity, equality and community dovetail with that of the association. In Northern Ireland football really is for all.
“The game is strong on both sides of the border; I know NIFL is in a really good place, and I’m delighted to be embarking once again on this footballing journey with our counterparts at the FAI. A big thanks to Unite the Union too for its backing.”