My first visit to Thorp Arch was as a youth-team player at Nottingham Forest. Going there was like landing on planet Premier League.
To put you in the picture, at Forest we trained a short walk down the Trent from the City Ground. No frills and no mod-cons. We changed at the stadium – first team players in the home dressing room, kids in the away – and then went out the back gate, took a right and strolled a few yards down the river.
I don’t want to make out like we were deprived because the ethos at Forest was brilliant but the point is that Thorp Arch was ahead of its time back then. It felt the same when I joined Leeds United in 2007. We’d been relegated to League One and no-one in that division had anything resembling our training ground.
Times change, though, and football moves on. This week I went for a look round Derby County’s training complex to see what it was like. It had a major upgrade not so long ago and it’s super duper: saunas, steam rooms, three different swimming pools on different levels and underwater treadmills. Everything you’d expect. Someone I know there said to me ‘it’s a bit like Leeds’ but if I’m being honest, it’s better. It’s more advanced and more modern. It feels up to date.
Thorp Arch is still a great complex, plush and very comfortable, but I don’t think anyone would pretend that it hasn’t suffered over the years or that it maybe hasn’t moved with the times.
In some ways it hasn’t been able to move with the times. Leeds have had some barren years and periods where they’ve been fairly skint.
In the spell when I was there, you never got the sense that money was being thrown at the place or that the facilities were changing much. If anything it felt slightly under-utilised.
I suppose that’s a natural consequence of a club running into difficulties. If you’re short of cash, an already decent training ground is the last thing you’re going to spend it on. It looks okay, it feels okay so, for now, it’ll do.
But it seems pretty clear from all that’s been said this week that Leeds want to go and want to go quickly, and while that almost surprises you in the first instance, it makes sense when you think about what other clubs have been doing.
It’s certainly odd to think of Thorp Arch becoming a bit of history because, in my day, you could never really see a stage where there would be a good reason to leave. The problem is, the facilities aren’t box-fresh anymore and they aren’t cheap either. I don’t know the ins and outs of the deal up there but it’s clearly pretty expensive to rent and the fact that the land belongs to someone else doesn’t make major alterations too easy to carry out.
The thing you can’t do is let nostalgia rule your head. If it’s right to go then go. Hearing about the plans for a new base make me feel the same way I did when I heard that Andrea Radrizzani was buying back Elland Road. From what I can see he’s a man who wants to do more than pay lip service to the ownership of Leeds.
He seems intent on delivering big deals and big projects; huge statements of intent, if you like. That’s important for two reasons.
Firstly, Leeds stand to benefit from a much better infrastructure. But secondly, you don’t feel inclined to question Radrizzani’s motives for being here.
If he’s buying Elland Road, if he’s moving Leeds away from Thorp Arch, if he’s wants to build a new sports village and has approached the council to help then it hardly paints a picture of a man who plans to sell up for a profit in 12 months.
It would make no sense. A state-of-the-art training ground and a category one academy? What’s not to like if the club deliver on those promises?
It strikes me as interesting that, according to the council, Leeds think their first-team players are ‘disconnected’ from the community by being 20 miles north of the city.
I can only say that I never felt like that when I was at Leeds. Thorp Arch is secluded, there’s no denying that, but even city-centre training grounds have masses of privacy and security. Whatever they build in Leeds will have its share of high walls and fences – if nothing else, to stop us lot in the media from peering in every morning!
I don’t want to come across as precious but players do need their own private space.
There’s enough scrutiny on you on a Saturday afternoon and while football is different to most jobs, I doubt there are many offices where the general public are allowed to wander in and mill around as they please.
I liked the fact that at Thorp Arch you could get on with your work without any distractions.
We always did a decent amount of community or charity work and that, for me, is the best way to engage. As for any new training ground, it will doubtless be cutting edge.
These days, a top-level training ground has to be. But a crucial part of the architecture, and I can’t stress this enough, is the feeling you create around the place.
Forest didn’t have underwater treadmills in my day but they created an environment which you enjoyed and felt very happy in.
All the other aspects – technology, analysis and so on – are vital too, but the atmosphere genuinely matters.
Get that right and a lot of other things will fall into place.