“At the heart of the community”: inside the new state-of-the-art Crystal Palace academy

When Gareth Southgate joined Crystal Palace academy as a teenager, the club’s decaying training ground at Mitcham was, in some cases, as old as the earth itself. With the grass turned to slush by the rain or as quickly made hard as concrete by the wind, players were running to the showers in the afternoon before the water cooled. At the canteen, where Southgate first made its presence as a leader, meticulous nutrition boiled down to meat pies and sausage sandwiches. Beckenham may be just eight miles away, but as the England coach himself said, ‘it’s been a long journey for the club’.

With a sense of pride, it was Southgate who literally cut the ribbon to officially open Palace’s new state-of-the-art academy on Thursday. The £ 20million facility is the culmination of over a decade of planning, patience and persistence from club president Steve Parish and all the staff – from teachers to chefs, gardeners to security guards – who walked through the gates in the years since. It’s the physical testament to what Palace has slowly built up and, in a sense, also symbolic of their entry into a more recent and daring era under Patrick Vieira, with such a young and exciting team.

The academy itself is immaculate, all in shiny glass and plastic, with a booth still under construction that will eventually accommodate 500 seats in front of the heated main ground. There’s an indoor dome with irrigated artificial turf, a state-of-the-art gym and swimming pool, and a polished canteen so far from Mitcham it might as well be from another world. On the one hand, everything is so new that it almost feels like an assault on the past, but it’s not the bricks and mortar alone that are a breeding ground for talent.

“Does a building itself create a fantastic environment and culture? No it’s not, ”Southgate said. “At the end of the day, it depends on the people, but what people will feel when they come here every day, the staff and the players, is special. When we were at the Palace we had resilience, but every time we went to Highbury or Tottenham we felt a little inferior. We didn’t necessarily have that investment in us. We didn’t necessarily feel we could match these teams.

“You have one of the best catchment areas in the country, but if you can’t match the facilities of some of the nearby clubs it will be a barrier to recruiting. One of those differences has now changed. The young players, when they come here, will feel as special as any other club in the Premier League because your facilities will live up to it. Now it’s up to everyone to bring it to life. To bring the building to life. You have a blank canvas, brilliant facilities and a board that cares about development, about its young players and now it’s up to you to make it happen.

Vieira understands better than anyone the importance of an academy. He saw how Arsene Wenger’s transformation methods spread to Arsenal in the late ’90s and learned to put his own into practice at Manchester City almost two decades later. Palace’s infrastructure may still not compare to the immense resources superclubs have, but that’s what makes their evolution more romantic. This is not necessarily a premise designed with eyes on world domination, but to develop their position locally and ensure that the best players in the region do not slip through the net or become easily prized.

“How the club has been built over the past 10 years, it hasn’t gone from zero to 10,” Vieira said. “It has been done step by step and the goal is to always try to build a sustainable football club. I think having a facility like this will allow us to fight more with the teams around us and convince the young players in that area to stay in that area. When you bring a young player here and let him visit a facility like this, which has everything for a young player to develop and become a Crystal Palace player, a Premier League player, we have the tools to have this ambition.

The academy, for all its promises and greatness, also represents far more than the small percentage of players who pursue successful professional careers. As Vieira has pointed out, “it’s at the heart of the community”, one of the most diverse in the country, and must represent South London as a whole rather than a privileged few. This is something Parish has also repeated, and it is a principle he has championed since taking over the club in 2010. Elite level academies, more often than not, are ruthless and “Darwinian”, and emotion takes a back seat to the demands for talent. To stay true to the club’s roots, it’s a culture Palace doesn’t want to drown in.

“[The academy is] proof that this club – this south London – can have the best, if it wants to, ”said Parish. “He can achieve the best if he wants to. This place, this facility will be home to thousands of children – not only to teach them football, but also to teach them life skills. You could learn your GCSEs, B Tech, computer visualization, carpentry or coding, or any number of life skills. This place is definitely not all about football. One of the most important things, I think, is that we teach young people how to deal with not only success but also failure. This place is as much about teaching people about resilience, learning important life lessons, finding your thing, seeing people around you who look like you and feel like you.

For these lessons, academy players who glimpsed the opening ceremony need look no further than the guest of honor. Nothing was ever guaranteed for Southgate when he joined Palace. In fact, for a while, his relentless enthusiasm was all that persuaded coaches not to cut his dream at 16, when Southgate feared the worst and started a work experience at the local newspaper. That’s why, perhaps, his first words on Thursday offered so much more than just an opening bet. “What I can say here is that it all started here when I was a 14-year-old schoolboy,” he said. “So I hope that gives some of the academy guys here the belief that you can start here and that you can have an international career with England. Frankly, if I can end up leading the team. national, then anything is possible for each of you.

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