Football legend Phil Neal is hoping Irchester Sports Association’s (ISA) brand new facilities will help an Irchester youngsters make it to the top of their sport.
The former Northampton Town, Liverpool and England international, who was born and raised in the village, was the guest of honour and officially opened the ISA’s new changing rooms and clubhouse facilities.
Upon opening the £300,000’s worth of improvements, Neal said: “It would be lovely for someone else to make it in football or cricket, or whatever sport, from this village.
“I am the first person to do so, but who knows, maybe in the next generation or two with facilities as good as these others will as well.
“They deserve to make it far and make it big – that’s all I wish for.”
Neal, capped 50 times for England and whose honours include four European winners’ medals, still remembers his childhood in the village.
He added: “I’ll never forget the facilities here and the net I used to kick the ball into, the pitch is still in the same place too.
“It really is a delight to be back. The sports club is a social gathering now, and that’s what I’m impressed with.
“People have worked really hard to get this facility in a small village like my own and I’m very proud to be here to open these facilities, that is going to generate good income and solidarity in the village.”
Nowadays, Neal is based in the north and doesn’t often visit his roots. Therefore, admitted it was a pleasant surprise to see where he grew up and how much had changed.
“I was amazed to see Irchester again,” he said.
“It’s now a cricket-cum-football arena. Even from where I am in the north, they don’t have facilities like these here in Irchester, so well done and well done to those who made it happen and those who have supported financially and what went into building this place.”
Hundreds of children and adults attended the event which played host to multiple Irchester Romans Youth games, an Irchester Veterans game and a charity cup match between Irchester United and Irchester Sports Sunday side – which Sports won 4-1.
Not only was the football on show, the cricket nets were open with youngsters showing off their bowling skills.
The day also marked the official opening of the new changing room pavilion, which has four dual-gender changing rooms, two referees’ rooms and also boasts under-floor heating.
A refurbishment of the clubhouse was also undertaken with the addition of a kitchen and spectator toilets as well as extending the previous building.
After years of planning, Neal cut the ribbon to open the new facilities which totaled £300,000, rather than the £260,000 figure previously suggested.
ISA chairman John Maguire admitted this will be the last of the improvements, for three years at least.
He said: “There won’t be any more improvements for the next three years at least.
“I have had to borrow £30,000, interest free from our members, and have issued a person guarantee that they will be paid back within that time scale.
“The new facilities will be massively important to sport in the local area and I’d like to thank Phil Neal for officially opening them.
“The Irchester Sports Association would also like to thank the Premier League and The FA Facilities Fund and Football Stadia Improvement Fund (FSIF) for providing investment, which will encourage further growth of grassroots football and hopefully our small village can have another player that goes on to gain 50 England caps!”
The Premier League and The FA Facilities Fund and FSIF contributed the main chunk of the finances, paying £200,000 between them.
The Premier League and The FA Facilities Fund is delivered by the Football Foundation and provides grants towards developing new or refurbished grassroots football facilities.
The ISA, which encompasses, Irchester United FC, Irchester Sports FC, Irchester Romans Youth Football Club and Irchester Cricket Club, put forward £65,000 with the remaining £5,000 from the Irchester Parish Council, as well as the £30,000 interest-free loan from members.
Alfred Street is the home of 17 different sporting teams.
One of those is Irchester United who compete in the ChromaSport & Trophies United Counties League Division One.
And manager Steve Sargent said: “We’re very fortunate and very thankful to have such a fantastic ground at Irchester. There’s so many good people working tirelessly behind the scenes.
“Now it’s our job to try and pay them back by improving the football team’s fortunes.
“Our new changing rooms are fantastic, there’s much more space for both home and away teams. They lead out straight onto the pitch which stops any needless waiting outside.
“Also, I never thought I’d see underfloor heating at this level but we’re fortunate enough to have it. It’ll make those winter nights more bearable!”
Although the changing rooms have been opened, Sargent said there are some minor additions he wants to make.
“We still have a few ideas to install to make to changing rooms more specific and tailored to our needs,” he added.
“We’ve also had major developments in the clubhouse. The games room and function room have been extended which has made it more purposeful.”
Finally, he praised the way the ISA have handled the changes, saying: “The sports association have been brilliant in their forward thinking and delivering what they set out to do.
“All the work that took place didn’t impact the footballing side even though it started halfway through the season. There’s been a professional attitude throughout.”
UCL chairman John Weeks was invited along to the opening and he added: “Irchester United are a great community club, I never thought they would get floodlights, but they did. I never thought they would achieve promotion from Division One, they did.
“And I also thought they would never get facilities like these, which they have. It’s great for the county, football really is thriving in Northamptonshire.”
Once all the Irchester Romans youth games had finished and the rain cleared away, it was left for Neal to cut the ribbon.
But before doing so, he passed on a few words of advice to the young footballers.
He said: “Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Show your talent and enjoy your football.
“You will go on from here and maybe like me, another player may go on to play for England or a very very good team. You are a force to be reckoned with.”