I’m all too aware that being Minister for Sport must appear to the outsider as a dream job for anyone who, like me, is passionate about sport and wants to spread the word about why it’s so important. And so it is.
Yes, there are lots of meetings and no shortage of wrangling about the bureaucratic detail around turning great intentions into reality, but the best days are when you actually get out and see success stories on the ground.
And last week I got the chance to do just that, boarding an early morning train up to the Midlands to pay a visit to Saint George’s Park , the home of the new National Football Centre.
And it’s a remarkable place indeed. It occupies a site in the National Forest, with 330 acres of landscaped parkland holding 11 full-size outdoor pitches and a matching one indoors under a vast roof, with a viewing gallery. Then there’s a running track and a running hill, and a “Desso” training pitch which is a replica of Wembley.
But the thing that makes St George’s truly remarkable, I think, is something called ‘Perform,’ a specially created fitness centre that includes sports medicine, rehabilitation facilities, and any number of extraordinary machines and installations to help build performance levels for the 24 England football teams that use the centre.
There’s a hydro-therapy pool with a built-in treadmill so you can run underwater, with CCTV allowing you and your trainer to see what your legs are doing as you do so. Churning water is not, of course, the perfect medium for pin-sharp images and I’m told the distortion is less than flattering, but it’s certainly effective. Then there’s a plunge pool filled with ice-cold water to coax muscles that have taken a pounding from exhaustive training back to something approaching normality.
While I was there I met the England Women’s team who were going through the final preparations for their packed game against European Champions Germany at Wembley. Now, I am unashamedly so proud of those young women and what they have achieved for women’s sport so it was a real lump-in-the-throat moment when skipper Steph Haughton presented me with a memento England shirt with ‘GRANT’ printed on the back.
I know England didn’t manage to get the result we all wanted at Wembley on Sunday but am sure they will take lessons from that defeat into their preparations for next summer’s World Cup in Canada. The atmosphere at Wembley, even in the torrential rain, was incredible and showed just what a strong support base there is for women’s football in this country.
And the future looks bright with the stunning facilities provided by the FA at St George’s Park only going to help our women’s team progress further. My time in Burton was both a fascinating and emotional day.
In some ways the most moving moment for me came at the very end of the visit when I was shown the magnificent statue of Arthur Wharton, the world’s first professional black footballer. It’s only been in place for a month and I for one think that it’s an absolutely brilliant idea by the FA to have done so.
Arthur played in the 1880s as a goal keeper for clubs including Darlington, Preston North End and Sheffield United, and his statue captures him diving backwards and tipping a ball over the crossbar.
Its position, in an ornamental garden at the very centre of a red St George’s cross is almost unbearably poignant. I really hope it becomes an iconic image for all those young BAME players and coaches that I so want to see entering the game, and spending time at St. George’s.