With the first team struggling on the pitch during the late 1960s Alan Brown was hard at work trying to lay some solid foundations for the future – quite literally on some days.
Despite his fearsome reputation, the Sunderland boss was highly innovative when it came to training regimes and match preparation, and with the club winning the FA Youth Cup in 1967 and 1969 he was keen to capitalise on the potential talent within the north east. As a result, he spearheaded the plans for the club’s purpose built training ground in Washington and on this day in 1970 the Minister for Sport Denis Howell formally opened the new facility.
Up to that point it had been a labour of love for Brown, who in his spare time could sometimes be seen on site lending a hand with construction and had even tasked his players with installing some of the flagged footpaths around the exterior of the building. Boasting four full sized pitches and a vast gymnasium it was an impressive venture that cost in the region of £120,000, and as well as helping bring the club bang up to date the centre was designed so that it could benefit the wider community too.
Brown’s dreams had now come to fruition; the 210ft long, 110ft wide and 36ft high gym featured over 16 miles of floorboarding and was adaptable so that it could be converted into three smaller areas. Once the players were done for the day the centre was opened up to the public or used to stage large scale events – the capacity for which could be between 2500 and 3000 people depending on the sport or activity.
Before the project came off Sunderland’s players would do a lot of their training behind the Roker End but they now had a much more appropriate resource, which is just as well because the 1969-70 season had proven to be a real slog. It was one of the worst ever endured by the club up to that point in terms of results and points return, and with relegation from the top-flight confirmed just a fortnight after the official opening the Washington base provided some cause for optimism.
Sunderland were rightly proud of their state of the art facilities, which formed the backdrop for the next couple of squad photographs and would become a focal point too for the area. They were central to the club’s increasing commercial operation and in 1972 the centre hosted the Washington International Youth Festival, which was billed as the first of its kind to be held in England. Opened by Sir James Steel, the festival included a U19s football tournament plus a wide range of spin offs.
As well as a fashion parade ‘for the ladies’ and a cookery demonstration by Clement Freud, who at that point was a well-known tv and radio personality and a year later would become a member of parliament, the club put on a free fall parachute display, police dog show, mannequin parade, pony riding, bingo and music from Washington Colliery band. Visitors could take penalties against Derek Forster or Jimmy Montgomery and there was also a professional footballer’s table tennis competition, in which Middlesbrough’s Johnny Vincent beat Brian Chambers in the final.
Sunderland were also runners up in the football competition, in which they, Burnley, Sheffield United and West Ham United were joined by Dunkirk, Offenbach Kickers, Rotterdam AVS and Standard Liege. After drawing with West Ham, Ray Yeoman’s side then thrashed Dunkirk and Rotterdam 4-0 and 9-0 respectively to reach the final. Played at Roker Park, the goals dried up and it was Burnley who took the honours, winning 1-0 thanks to a strike by future Sunderland player Leighton James.
A national initiative in 1976 called Sports for All helped further showcase the training centre. There were demonstrations of several sports, including indoor hockey, karate and judo and trampolining, whilst in the same year there were changes of pace for an Afghan hound show and the Panorama of Movement and Dance – at that point the largest single event ever in the town. The programme remained varied thereafter, and in the same year Development Manager Duncan Gibson attended the Montreal Olympics hoping to book appearances from leading gymnastic competitors following a hugely popular display by the Japanese team in Washington before the Games.
Now branded as the Sporting Club of Washington, amateurs continued to use the centre for their own leisure pursuits - although watching the professionals close up remained the big attraction. Basketball became a huge draw; as well as hosting a team under the banner of the sporting club, newly elected national league side EPAB called it home and became trailblazers for the sport in the region.
1977 was another big year in the life of the training ground. Two Kings Cup indoor tennis matches where staged at the venue, featuring Great Britain stars Mark Cox and John and David Lloyd. They were televised nationally, and the attendance for the second game, in which GB beat Yugoslavia, set a record for the highest amount of people to have watched a Kings Cup game on home soil. During the summer there was another coup when Muhammad Ali took part in a charity boxing exhibition, alongside the likes of Alan Minter and Richard Dunn, whilst visiting the area.
When structural issues came to light the club moved out and the centre came under local authority ownership. Sunderland’s players would instead train at Cleadon and Maiden Castle before the opening of the Charlie Hurley Centre and then the Academy of Light, whilst the centre was refurbished and renamed the Northumbria Centre. It continued to be used for various sports and in 1993 held a WBO World Featherweight title bout between John Davison and Steve Robinson.
20 years on from that and with use of it dwindling, permission was given to demolish the gymnasium. Situated on a parcel off land on Stephenson Road, the pitches remained and now form part of the Northern Area Playing Field. Just up from there stands Washington Football Hub, which itself is helping take sport forward, but for a long time it was the training ground that was the place to be.