The first thing that strikes you about Manchester United’s multi million pound, hi tech training ground is that nothing actually strikes you at all. No road signs to mark the way. Camouflaged by an electricity sub station on one side and a chemical plant on the other.
Welcome to the secret world of Fortress Carrington where the combatants are groomed, honed and prepared for battle, scientifically equipped with the ultimate physical tools for the job and rewarded for their labours with Presidential style comforts.
Getting past the remotely controlled security barrier, a quarter mile from the nerve centre, is by invitation only. Names are checked by intercom against the day’s visitor list, the public arrivals area could not be less public and beyond that, to borrow a Churchillian analogy, an iron curtain descends. A 2.4 kilometre, high wire fence and 30,000 trees hide Fortress Carrington from the prying eyes of unscrupulous opponents as tactics and game plans are worked on.
Autograph hunting fans, once indulged by the players as they waited at the security barriers, are now banned. Not so much unwelcome as spoiled for them by the professional sellers of signed sports memorabilia who quickly cottoned on to a get rich opportunity. Nothing but nothing is allowed to deflect Sir Alex Ferguson, his army of coaches, dieticians, sports scientists, hospital size medical back up and of course, his players from the job in hand.
Warning notices, by order of Sir Alex, bar even family and agents from the training area while the players are in residence. Journalists in particular, are persona non grata. Space age does not begin to describe the high performance engine that powers United from behind the fences across the 108 acre site. Driven by a factory size 200 strong workforce, when you hear recent visitor, the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, was impressed, you get the idea.
Fourteen football pitches with undersoil heating, two indoor 3G pitches, training and rehabilitation areas, physiotherapy and massage rooms and remedial and hydrotherapy pools. Squash and basketball courts, sauna, steam and weight rooms, a restaurant for staff and players where every morsel scientifically approved to the last calorie as well as conference rooms, offices, classrooms, a TV studio to interview players and staff for MUTV.
On the day of a game the players come in to only do stretches and light work. Only those not involved in the game or injured will be here. Through the busy laundry, the boot room, every pair named to the famous feet that fill them, on into the first team dressing room and another amazing discovery. A maroon coloured tardis, into which one player is locked at a time for a fix of artificial sunlight is not to boost their tans but their Vitamin D levels.
The club employs experts in everything, from their eyes to their feet, the players are constantly checked over for any change that can affect their performance, likewise their diets and training. The theories change every year, this year exercise bikes are the big thing, they do a lot of work. Sir Alex does like to embrace new ideas and methods, though sometimes he just goes along with some of them. He’s one of the first in every morning on his bike.
The medical side is also important. At this stage of the season, on any given day, there will be players nursing knocks, bumps and bruises. Psychology also plays a vital role in the DNA of Carrington. As you walk the corridors, the legends of Manchester United are everywhere, reminding the young players coming through the Academy ranks of the glorious history they’ve been chosen to perpetuate.
Larger than life images of the greats stare down from every side and the heart swells at the sight of their own red legends – George Best, Sammy McIlroy, Jimmy Nicholl, Norman Whiteside, Jackie Blanchflower and the rest
What an achievement to have your picture adorn the walls of the training ground of the world’s most famous club, so take a bow the blond, afro haired cherub that was once David Jeffrey, standing shoulder to shoulder with a young Whiteside in the youth team class of ’81, and further along, Keith Gillespie.
And everywhere, strategically placed and enlarged for effect, is the iconic last picture of the Busby Babes, lined up for their final match in Belgrade, some never to return beyond the ill fated homeward stopover in Munich. The grainy, black and white image has been digitally enhanced, colouring up the red shirts and in the process, leaving the goalkeeper Harry Gregg in his dark shirt as the standout figure.
This then is the road to Manchester United stardom, a place of contrasts, ordinary on the outside, exceptional on the inside. That near miraculous recovery made by Wayne Rooney from his ankle injury suffered in Munich which allowed him to make his return eight days later, was no mystery at all. It was just one of the many dividends returned on the hefty investment that the club made in the creation of the futuristic Carrington complex.
Should United run organised, high security fan tours of Carrington?