Continuing our summer feature series, Chris Williams visits the new Training Ground at Oxford United.
"It’s Wednesday morning and I’m feeling a little sad. I am meeting Richard Blackmore at our former training ground, and all I see around me is destruction. For the last two seasons we have called the portakabins on Horspath Road home, and now they are simply rubble; damp and dispiriting in the early summer drizzle.
Just one month ago this was as lively a place as you could wish to visit. The club had previously used the old Rover Sports and Social Club buildings as home; surely the only club in the country with two ballrooms, complete with mirror balls at their training base? When video analyst Dan Bond won Strictly Oxford people were surprised, but we knew he had a distinct advantage!
However the success of MINI meant that our landlords at BMW needed to expand and so with a little reworking the whole first team operation was squeezed into the temporary buildings that housed the Academy staff, with the addition of a kitchen and the relocation of the gym building. It was fine and it worked well as a temporary solution but was always going to be a short stay because the land was earmarked for more automotive purposes.
We have moved around a fair amount during my time at the club. In the early days we trained at whichever college was kind enough to lend us a pitch. Then we moved down the A34 to Milton United and enjoyed the benefits of a permanent base for the first time. The problem was that it was a little distant: speaking as the man despatched to deliver whatever had been forgotten each day I can recall having to drive there to drop off all sorts of items the kitman had forgotten; towels, drink bottles, bibs and Adam Murray.
Next came a training base at Chesterton, near Bicester, which had a bit more space but similar location difficulties, before the move to Horspath Road in 2010. There was always a timescale on it though: BMW had been more than helpful but for the last two years the search had been on for a new home. I can’t begin to tell you how many meetings there have been or how many plans and designs have been floated past my eyes. I know it’s a training ground but you’re not supposed to move the goalposts THAT many times…
However, once the final agreement was signed, work has been going on at a terrific rate and today I meet Richard at our old home and he drives me round for a full tour.
Almost opposite the athletics track, the new ground is. Um. Hold on. I keep calling it a Training Ground but that’s like calling Wembley a pitch. This place is going to have so much more than just grass and goalposts. We should call it a Centre, or a Hub, or SOMETHING that highlights a new era and a new facility. If anyone has ideas then let me know.
We drive in through an entrance where work is just starting on two slip roads on to the long, snaking drive that carries you past the pitches. They were seeded long ago and are a lush bright green. They will be shared not just by OUFC but by the local community, and that’s why there is a cricket pavilion and pitches on site as well: the new nets are already in place and the smaller cricket pavilion is already clad and looking rather splendid.
Oxford United’s new building is two tiered and the cladding won’t be added just yet, but we enter to find a small army of builders insulating and flooring the ground floor. It is a huge cavernous space and will be home to the changing rooms, high tech gym, medical rooms, laundry and boot room. The groundsmen will have a store room and office on this level and much of the plant will be here as well. The new Hub (bear with, I’ll try out a few names and see what fits) will have a very eco friendly irrigation system, fed by a pond that is pumped to the water tank and then to the pitches. Even the gutters will lead to the irrigation, while the biosystem for the waste is just as ecologically thought through. Energy saving lighting systems will illuminate only the rooms in use and also highlight the new technology that is being invested in: fast broadband, entry cards and presentation theatres with raised seating are just a few of the nice touches.
Upstairs is more fitted out at this stage with the studwork all in place for the walls. There are offices for the small army that supports Karl Robinson: analysts, nutritionists, the medical team, the sports scientists and even the media team who get a new office AND a room to use for interviews - no more standing in the car park waiting for lorries to thunder past.
The Academy will be on this top floor as well. There is a new classroom for the scholars just next to the analysis suite, while the brand new kitchen will allow the chefs much easier access to the dining room. You know how my brain works by now, readers, and I pick up on small things; having room for the youth team, first team and staff to sit down and eat together rather than doing it in shifts can only help, surely?
There is a lounge area and a further meeting room and everything is Vitamin-D-tastic with big windows flooding the rooms with light. All is as it should be. The Manager’s office looks directly out across the pitches, mine looks out on the septic tank.
Now look, you may well watch the video above (it’s Freeview. You’re welcome) and say ‘well, it looks great but it doesn’t look very finished’. You have a point, but if I could show you video from a week before then you would be as amazed as I was by the transformation. Perhaps filming on a damp grey morning doesn’t help but all I can say is it’s going well and remains on schedule for when the players return. With a trip to Ireland giving the build team an extra week or two then everything is on course for July.
Perhaps a new Training Base may not be the most exciting news for fans, but in many ways it signals a new approach behind the scenes. Why should we ‘make do and mend’? Why can’t Oxford United have a Training Den that is the envy of other clubs? Once it’s open, and once the inevitable teething problems of a new HQ are smoothed out, then we’ll invite fans to come along and see for themselves. First person to give me a good name for it can be first through the doors…
The summer features are an experiment to see if longer written articles have a place online or should remain predominantly in the matchday programme. If you have thoughts on the matter email firstname.lastname@example.org