SUNDERLAND fans had to look twice yesterday when its line-up featured club greats like Jimmy Montgomery alongside first team players such as Duncan Watmore.

Players old and new teamed up to officially open the city’s multi-million-pound sports hubs which are already experiencing record-breaking demand from players across the region.

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Black Cats greats Jimmy Montgomery and Gary Bennett were joined by current first team players Duncan Watmore and Alim Ozturk to tour the three new centres that have been developed as part of an £18m project to transform the state of sporting facilities across the city.

The Northern Echo:

The single biggest ever investment into grassroots sporting facilities in the region included £14m from the Premier League, the FA and Government’s Football Foundation and £3.8m from Sunderland City Council which also helped secure the hub sites, and partnership funding.

The sites are located at Northern Area Playing Fields Washington, Downhill and Ford Quarry.

The Washington hub, which has been in operation since November 2019, has already attracted 16,000 sign-ups, making it the most sought-after facility of its kind in England.

The Northern Echo:

Sunderland AFC striker and Football Foundation ambassador since 2015, Duncan Watmore, said: “The sheer scale of this project is pretty unbelievable, really. Sunderland is a city with a really rich footballing history and with a project as big as this, it’s only going to get richer.

“Looking around, the facilities on offer are just brilliant and cater to so many different needs within the local community. I’m actually slightly jealous because growing up, I very rarely had the opportunity to use facilities as good as these and it’s difficult to put into words just what a difference this will make.

“From a personal perspective, I just love playing football and it’s had such a profound impact on me both physically and mentally. It’s brilliant to know that, with investment from the Football Foundation, there are thousands of people who will be able to experience these same benefits over the coming years.”

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The Football Foundation investment formed part of a five-year commitment to build multi-pitch hubs across towns and cities in England to raise the quality of grassroots facilities and provide opportunities for all.

The Northern Echo:

In total, the three hubs have seen the creation of ten full-size third generation (3G) artificial grass pitches (AGPs) and new and refurbished buildings at each site with changing rooms, cafes and social and education spaces. The Downhill hub also features a 60-station gym.

The hubs will also play a key role in hosting one of the largest grassroots football leagues in the country, the Russell Foster Youth League.

The league was created in 1975 and its professional footballing graduates include England internationals Jordan Pickford and Jordan Henderson, Blackburn Rovers’ Stewart Downing and Danny Graham and Sunderland great Michael Gray.

Since early November, the Washington hub alone has been used for more than 750 junior and adult matches, while accommodating an average of 105 training sessions every week.

In addition to the three Hub sites the Football Foundation has invested in 375 grassroots football projects, worth £72m across the Durham FA region since 2000 to improve the experience for regular players as well as attracting new players to the game.