AFTER almost a decade of plans and proposals, Sunderland's Academy of Light training base officially opened the doors to its first indoor training pitch last night.
And the Football Association's director of football development, Trevor Brooking, was on hand alongside the club's owner Ellis Short to gave the complex the seal of approval from the English game's governing body.
Invited guests looked on as children from as young as six and up to the age of 18 trained on the latest 4G lano artificial surface, helping reaffirm the club's status as a Category 1 club in the Elite Player Performance Plan and similar to that use by Manchester United and Chelsea.
And Brooking thinks the giant barn, which Sunderland's former chairman Sir Bob Murray had been hoping to build back in 2003, is exactly the sort of thing all clubs should have.
“You can get different age groups working here so December to March it means training programmes will now take place which might not have happened because of the weather,” said Brooking.
“An indoor centre is absolutely key to help get a better quality of younger player coming through as part of the Elite Player Performance Plan. We need this type of facility to deliver the numbers what we are wanting to achieve.”
Brooking would love to have similar facilities constructed around the country for the general public to use, but thinks it is essential for professional clubs – knowing Middlesbrough and Newcastle already have similar indoor pitches – to have them.
“I grew up informally, having a kick around with mates, my mum and dad never worried about where I was,” he said. “Nowadays you couldn't let them because of the social issues kicking around. Everything needs to be structured.
“Other countries put a leisure centre up whenever they build a new housing estate. That's because the local authority believed there should be one. With barns like this, it is the luck of the draw in this country.
“Nobody tells you that you should do this. With all the other demands on the services sport has suffered. Local youngsters would like to use things like this. You want everyone to have the opportunity when the conditions are grim.”
Building work started on the £3m complex at the back end of last season and will mean Sunderland's recruited youngsters – and first team at times – will no longer have to travel to the city's Crowtree Leisure Centre for indoor sessions.
After years of objections from residents in nearby Cleadon and Whitburn the 2009 application was finally approved in 2010 after lengthy consultations with the locals – even though it had to be reduced in size as part of the agreement.
Sunderland have also undertaken extensive environmental work on the site and chief executive Margaret Byrne said: “It's a great day for the club. It's the final piece of the jigsaw in what we are trying to do, to try to get young players through to the first team.
“I always felt it would happen with Ellis' support. You can hear the rain teaming down on the roof as I speak, now this facility means nothing will get in our way.
“Training will take place whatever the weather, which is brilliant. It's an academy facility but the first team will be popping in. Timetabled from 9am until 10pm every day. The fact that the weather can't stop training is fantastic for the club.”