The Back in the Game programme aims to use football as vehicle to provide men over the age of 35 and women over 30, of all levels of ability, the opportunity to re-engage with the sport in their local communities.
IFA Grassroots Development Manager Ian Stewart explained: "I came up with the name ‘Back in the Game’ because of a conversation I had with one of the players about me, as an ex-player, on why didn’t I get back into the game, so I took that phrase and used it for the programme.
"The aim is to get men and women to get active by playing football and we use that as a vehicle to get them together socially as well."
"I love it, football’s in my blood," said Berni Cowan, one of the female players involved in the scheme. "I’ve played from since near enough walking age and to have something available like Back in the Game for people that are considered retired is great."
The scheme started with the help of UEFA funding in 2016 and has grown from six teams to as many as 2,000 players taking part in 20 regional seven-a-side festivals throughout Northern Ireland in 2017. The IFA are confident that this figure could grow to as many as 10,000 players within the next five years.
"UEFA helped us last year to kick-start the programme," added Stewart. "That paid for facilities and a lot of that money also went towards buying kits and patches for the kits."
The initiative has categories for women over 30 and for men 35 and over, 45 and over and 55 and over. "You’ve got ex-international players, you’ve ex-Irish league players, you’ve people who work in offices, plumbers, plasterers, all different people, they’re from clubs, existing clubs, or they’re community groups who have just set up the team to play a game of football."
The scheme's ambassador is former Northern Ireland international and Manchester United player Sammy McIlroy: "It’s great to see people, ordinary people, of all ages coming and getting involved in playing football and enjoying themselves, no pressure, just going out there playing a football game, mingling with everyone and having a game.
"I tell everyone when I’m asked that actually playing the game is the best thing about football, forget managing, coaching or anything at all like that, playing is the cream, it’s all about the football. So every opportunity I get to play, I still do because I still love the game and coming here today and joining in with all those lads was great."