AN OLYMPIC gold medal-winning athlete was a surprise visitor to Burton yesterday as the great and the good of sport, business and politics marked the beginning of work at the new National Football Centre.
Michael Johnson was unveiled by the Football Association as the living embodiment of the kind of sporting excellence they hope St George’s Park will deliver for their own game.
The American sprinter joined leading FA figures including Gareth Southgate and Sir Trevor Brooking for an event at Burton and South Derbyshire College, before guests piled into the England team coach to go to see building work at the Rangemore Centre, a future training hub and base for the national team.
Mr Johnson told the Mail: “This is going to be a very impressive facility at a beautiful location and will have a big impact on football.
“There’s a huge focus on the elite level in sport but elite athletes don’t just drop out of the sky, they are developed through good coaching.”
As the luxury coach, registration number FA10 ENG, transported its illustrious guests from the college a gaggle of female students had gathered – but their hopes of spotting a Beckham or a Lampard were unfulfilled, with one girl exclaiming: “They’re all really old.” Others, however, were more star-struck.
Sports student Ryan Morris, 16, greeted former England international and FA head of elite development Mr Southgate with the words: “Southgate, you’re a legend!”
Ryan told the Mail: “It’s a privilege because you don’t often get the chance to meet such a big-name player.
“It’s great to have the FA centre in Burton and hopefully it will bring the community together and boost Burton’s image.”
As he surveyed the bulldozers and acres of churned-up earth where the football pitches, training block and hotel will stand, Mr Southgate said it was ‘staggering’ to see how much progress had been made since his last visit two weeks ago.
He said: “When I was playing for England we would borrow other clubs’ training facilities and get medical treatment in hotel rooms. All of this can now be accommodated here.
“We won’t get top-class players without top-class coaching and that’s why having this centre in Burton is so critical.”
Burton MP Andrew Griffiths, who organised a campaign to ensure the longdelayed centre came to Burton, said the day’s hullabaloo would be a regular occurrence in the town in the future.
He said: “There’s a real buzz and excitement here today. The national media has come here, and that’s just for the digging of the first sod of earth, so imagine what it will be like when we have the likes of Wayne Rooney in our town.
“This is a hugely exciting and important day. Burton has always been the home of beer but now it’s going to be the home of football, and beer and football have always gone very well together.”