Sunderland AFC striker, Duncan Watmore, opened St John’s School and Sixth Form College’s new £614,950 third generation (3G) artificial grass pitch (AGP), in Durham yesterday (Tuesday 19 April 2016) in his first role as a Football Foundation Ambassador.

The project was made possible thanks to a £214,950 grant from the Premier League & The FA Facilities Fund, which is delivered by the Football Foundation. Duncan cut the ribbon at the new 106m x 70m floodlit 3G AGP, which replaced a dilapidated Multi-Use Games Area (MUGA) and part of a natural grass playing field that was prone to waterlogging.

The Football Foundation worked with St John’s School and the Durham FA to produce a five-year Football Development Plan (FDP), which is a vision for how football will be delivered at the site with emphasis on increasing participation. The main partner clubs on site are St Mary’s JFC and Escomb JFC.

As a result, St Mary’s JFC are able to increase the number of teams they cater for from 18 to 40, with the majority of growth at boys and girls Under-10 to Under-18 level over the five year period. The club also intends to introduce Under-11 and Under-18 disability teams.  

The School Sports Partnership – a scheme designed to increase sports and physical education opportunities for schoolchildren – plans to give 26 of St John’s teachers and 36 Junior Sports Leaders the opportunity to gain FA Level One coaching qualifications.

Duncan, 22, signed a new four-year contract with the Black Cats in November last year, following impressive performances for Sunderland and also for the England Under-21 team. Notably, he netted a goal and provided two assists against Switzerland in a 2017 UEFA European Under-21 Championship qualifier.

The Premier League & The FA Facilities Fund is funded by the Premier League, The FA, and the Government, via Sport England. It is delivered by the Football Foundation, the country’s largest sports charity. Since it was launched in 2000, the Foundation has awarded around 14,000 grants worth more than £546m towards improving grassroots sport, which it has used to attract additional partnership funding of over £773m – over £1.3bn of investment into the grassroots game.

St John’s School also received £150,000 from Sport England’s Inspired Facilities fund towards the cost of the new pitch.

Since 2000 the Football Foundation Funding Partners’ investment has provided 270 grants worth £19.3m towards grassroots sports projects worth over £62.2m across the whole of Durham.

By providing more high-quality facilities, coupled with coaching at the appropriate age group, the Premier League & The FA Facilities Fund aims to improve the experience for regular players as well as attracting new players to the game.

Duncan said: “Yesterday was a really big day for everyone connected with St John’s and I’m thrilled to have played a small part by opening their new pitch for them – you can’t help but be impressed by it. I know from speaking to people about the Football Development Plan that there simply will not be a time when someone isn’t using it, which is just brilliant.

“Not so long ago, I was playing at the lower levels of the game and I can tell you that having access to quality facilities, just like this one, makes all the difference when you are trying to improve as a player.

“The beauty of floodlit 3G pitches is that they don’t get waterlogged and you can play on them through the dark evenings. I remember trying to train on some real quagmire natural grass pitches and then having to finish the session early because it got too dark!

“It’s not just the school who will benefit from this new pitch but the wider community, including St Mary’s JFC who will be able to run an extra 15 teams, including two disability sides – testament to the fact that this is a pitch for everyone to enjoy and become healthier as a result.

“I’m absolutely delighted to be a Football Foundation Ambassador because I’ve seen first-hand how crucial their work is. The Foundation has been around for 16 years now, during which time it has delivered 589 of these artificial grass pitches and I know the work to build even more continues.

“Of course facilities like this require big grants to make them possible. That’s why the Premier League, The FA and the Government deserve credit for funneling money from the very top of the game down to the grassroots, through the Football Foundation.”

Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, said: “It is great to see this impressive 3G pitch in Bishop Auckland. The facility will have a considerable impact on the numbers of young people participating in sport at both the school and partner clubs.

“I must thank Duncan Watmore for opening the pitch, and the Premier League & The FA Facilities Fund, through the Football Foundation, for their continued commitment to improving and developing grassroots facilities up and down the country.

“Sport is such an integral part of the curriculum, allowing young people to communicate, work together and live a healthy, active, lifestyle both in and out of school. I look forward to seeing the school go from strength to strength as a result of this funding.”

Lisa Byron, Headteacher at St John’s School and Sixth Form College, said: “This has been an exciting project for St John’s and we are extremely grateful for the generosity and support of the Football Foundation and Sport England in bringing this state-of-the-art facility to fruition.

“The new artificial pitch, complete with floodlights, is great for our students and local people, fantastic for bringing communities together and a source of inspiration for all those aspiring footballers and sportsmen and women. 

“The facility has transformed the delivery of our PE curriculum and provides year-round access, ensuring that football and sport continue to thrive both within and beyond St John’s.”

Paul Thorogood, Chief Executive of the Football Foundation, said: “I am delighted that a grant from the Premier League & The FA Facilities Fund has enabled St John’s School to upgrade their 3G AGP. This development will provide a real boost to sport in the local area. I must thank our new Ambassador, Duncan Watmore, for taking the time to open the facility.

“Since 2000, the Football Foundation has supported grassroots projects worth more than £1.3bn, investing into areas where the need is greatest and where it will have the biggest impact in terms of getting more people playing football and a wide range of other sports. 

“With this funding, provided by the Premier League, The FA and the Government, through Sport England, we are helping to improve community sports facilities across the country and thereby the playing experience of those who take part. This latest project in Durham is the latest addition to the inventory of modern community sports sites we are developing that cater for the needs of local people who want to play sport purely for the love if it and to stay healthy.”

Chris Hutchinson, Facilities & Investment Officer at Durham County FA, said: “The new pitch is another fantastic addition to the growing 3G artificial grass pitch provision within the County. St John’s is exactly the type of facility that will help us to drive local football for years to come.

“The new pitch will hopefully provide our local grassroots teams, clubs and Leagues with a fit for purpose football site to use for all formats of the game at all times of the year. One of our biggest Charter Standard Community Clubs, Bishop Auckland St. Mary’s Juniors FC have agreed to use the venue as a training and match site, which will provide the club with the platform for further growth and assist them with providing the most ideal playing environment for young players to learn and enjoy the game.

"We look forward to continuing our work with St. John's School & Sixth Form College through hosting FA Coach and Referee courses as well as Safeguarding and Emergency 1st Aid Workshops, therefore continuing the development of Football within Durham County”.