‘I didn’t expect this big’: Manchester City open facilities to fuel future

Richard Jolly speaks to Pablo Zabaleta about Man City's new City Football Academy, officially opened on Monday in Manchester, and what it means to the club's production line.
Manchester City's new City Football Academy, opened on Monday in Manchester, England. Photo Courtesy / Manchester City / December 8, 2014
Manchester City's new City Football Academy, opened on Monday in Manchester, England. Photo Courtesy / Manchester City / December 8, 2014

Click the arrows above to see more pictures of the facilities

MANCHESTER // The numbers are big, of course, but it is the smaller details that really impress. The jet wash, for instance, to clean the players’ boots before they return to the dressing rooms. Or the hydrotherapy area which contains six pools of water, at different temperatures ranging from 4°C to 36°C, to cater for individual players’ recoveries. Or the mobile, weather-proof big screen that can be taken to any of the 16-and-a-half pitches to provide instant video analysis of the sessions, plus the 56-seat auditorium for more considered examination.

Manchester City officially opened the 80-acre, £200 million (Dh1.14 billion) City Football Academy (CFA) on Monday. It is a training complex that is intended to be the best in the world. “It’s massive, brilliant,” said Pablo Zabaleta. “This is something great. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

No wonder. City studied 70 facilities across various sports in Europe, Australia and the United States. They considered 19 design versions before settling on the final one. There are pitches with three grass/artificial-turf surfaces, Desso, RouteZone and GrassMaster, which they can customise to prepare for opposing grounds.

Zabaleta has worked at the CFA with both City and, before his country’s friendly with Portugal, Argentina. A star-studded squad features players from Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain. “Everyone was impressed,” Zabaleta said. “Everyone” includes Lionel Messi.

Zabaleta qualifies as one of City’s old guard. He joined in 2008, a few weeks before Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bought the club. The facilities then were memorable, but for different reasons.

“After training you thought twice about going to the gym because it was really cold,” Zabaleta said. “They were two different parts of City and I was one of the few players who had a chance to train in both. It’s a completely different history but you must never forget where you’ve come from.”

Zabaleta was aware of the club’s plans to develop a world-class training ground but, he conceded: “I didn’t expect this big. This is a massive difference.”

The defender believes it will give City an added allure in the transfer market. “The owners have made a great investment to make Manchester City one of the top teams,” he said. “Having these facilities just makes it special.”

The players’ changing room is circular, on their suggestion, to make it more inclusive. The photos of them on the shelves gives it more of a homely feel. They have hotel-standard accommodation where they stay the night before home games. There is a lounge, too, with a large television, deluxe chairs and a pool table.

“The facilities, the dressing room, the spa, even the canteen is fantastic, everything you can imagine is there,” Zabaleta said. “You come here each day thinking: ‘I’d rather be here than my house.’ I could spend eight or nine hours here.”

Opportunities to relax are part of the complex but there are reminders of their responsibilities. The player-care department features cautionary tales, headlines about players who have suffered problems with alcohol, drugs and homelessness, and large posters advising them about British driving regulations and the dangers of social media. One message reads: “Train like a professional, Eat like a professional, Drink like a professional, Tweet like a professional.”

They are being given the opportunity to train like a professional, whatever the weather. The CFA includes the biggest indoor artificial pitch in England. It is only four years since Blackpool had Premier League games postponed because they do not have under-soil heating. City do: not just at the Etihad Stadium, which is over the road from the CFA, but on 10 training pitches. Eight of them are floodlit, too, and the Academy Stadium, where the Elite Development Squad and the women’s team will play, can seat 7,000. It is overlooked by the offices for the administrative staff.

The facility is ecologically friendly: 2,000 trees were planted and an 8.1-million-litre tank under the site collects rain and waters the pitches. Local firms were used for most of the construction: 70 per cent of the workforce on the CFA came from Greater Manchester, with 833 contracts given to companies with roots in the community.

The objective is to ensure that, as they used to, City have home-grown players. More than 450 footballers will train at the academy every week, from the Under-6 side to the first 11. The Academy Building houses scholars; there is even a cafe for their parents as well as a separate one for the youngsters. “The kids are very lucky to have this,” Zabaleta said. “They should be proud to be here.”

A timeline in the corridor has a commemorative disk for each youth-team player who has debuted for the first team. No graduates have become first-team regulars in the past six years but the Spanish striker Jose Angel Pozo came on against Everton on Saturday and there are high hopes for his compatriot, the 17-year-old left-back Angelino.

“We need to be realistic and say it’s difficult for them, because the squad is very big. We have a group of 23 or 24 good players and some big names,” Zabaleta said. But he turns 30 in January and he and his contemporaries are in the second half of their careers.

The challenge for City is to produce some of their successors, rather than simply buying them. The Argentine is optimistic the answers lie within.

“I can’t guarantee there will be two or three. But I can see the quality of them is better than before. I’m absolutely sure that in the next few years we will see some of them have success in the first team because they have quality.”

He added: “I think we have everything we need to become a better team.”

That is the intention. A quote on the wall in reception comes from Sheikh Mansour, back in 2008. “We are building a structure for the future, not just a team of all-stars,” the City owner said.

They have built the structure. Now the task is to construct a side featuring a new generation from the CFA. As the message in the strength-and-conditioning gym reads: “Create the Future”.


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Published: December 8, 2014 04:00 AM


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