Academy of Light

Academy of Light

The Academy of Light is the name of the UEFA five star certified training facilities and youth academy for English football club Sunderland A.F.C.

Officially opened in March 2003, the Academy of Light is a state-of-the-art training facility located in convert|220|acre|km2 of land (60 acres dedicated to football) in Whitburn, South Tyneside - just north of Sunderland. It replaced the aging "Charlie Hurley Centre", located nearby. The site is used as the primary training facility for the first team, but is also used to train the youngsters in Sunderland's youth system.

Costing over £10 million to build, the site was the focus of protests from local residents who were angered at the development on a green belt. In the course of a seven year battle, proposals were withdrawn, two public inquiries were launched, Sunderland appealed against decisions on three occasions, and ultimately the site itself does not conform to Football Association Academy standards - meaning alternative arrangements had to be made for an indoor pitch.

Academy Status

To gain Academy status, a club must meet a set of minimum requirements as laid out by the FA. These requirements are wide-reaching, and include indoor and outdoor training facilities, education provisions, and dedicated youth training areas.

Academy status means that the club can take part in the FA Premier Youth Leagues and play against other academy teams. This ensures youngsters are playing against the best players in the country in their age group. Academy teams also take part in the FA Youth Cup. Sunderland have won the FA Youth Cup twice, although the last time was in 1969.

Academy of Light Proposal

In 1997 Sunderland A.F.C. underwent a rebirth. In that year the club moved to a new home (the Stadium of Light) and club owner Bob Murray and chairman John Fickling put forward proposals for a new world-class academy that would hopefully secure Sunderland's long-term future.

The Academy was to be built on acquired land opposite Sunderland's current training ground, on disused farmland.From the outset, the proposals were beset with problems. Sunderland's training ground was on the green belt between Sunderland and South Shields. Planning permission for building on the green belt is only granted in exceptional circumstances.

Sunderland's original plans were ambitious - amongst them, the club planned to build an indoor training centre and hostel. Local opposition was fierce, claiming that an area of rural wildlife would be destroyed and the green belt would be weakened, causing a merging of Sunderland and South Tyneside. Sunderland were forced to withdrawn the submission and investigate alternative sites in the region.

Revised Plans

In 1999 the club resubmitted a proposal, for the same site as the previous plan, but in which the height of the new developments would not be built any higher than the existing agricultural buildings. New lighting technology would reduce the effect of floodlights on the local area, and extensive re-seeding would benefit wildlife on the site. In total, the Academy would have a 12% smaller 'footprint' than the original farm buildings.Despite being recommended for acceptance by planning inspectors, the Local Planning Authority rejected the proposal on the grounds that it encroached on the green belt and risked causing a merging of the connurbations of City of Sunderland and South Tyneside.
Sunderland appealed, and following a public inquiry in September 1999, the Secretary of State for the Environment John Prescott overturned the ruling, stating that the benefits the Academy would bring to the community and region justified building on the green-belt. He was convinced that Sunderland had rigorously investigated alternative sites, and he went on to say that the green-belt would not be in danger, as the site had a smaller footprint than the previous site layout.Following the ruling, the Green Belt Action Group (GBAG) continued to protest against the plans. They felt the landscaping plans would ruin the 'rural' appearance of the area, and the fencing and mounding would create a 'visual barrier' [cite news
title = Protestors' -fears' over football academy
publisher = The Northern Echo
date = 2000-08-10
url =
accessdate = 2007-07-29
] . One of their biggest criticisms was that Sunderland were 'moving the goalposts', as their building plans were significantly different from those originally submitted in 1999.

In 2001, detailed building plans were rejected by South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council's planning committee, again on grounds on green belt encroachment [cite news
title = Football club to appeal against academy decision
publisher = The Northern Echo
date = 2001-06-14
url =
accessdate = 2007-07-29
] . Sunderland appealed, and a month later planning permission was given [cite news
title = Academy boost for Black Cats
publisher = The Northern Echo
date = 2001-07-21
url =
accessdate = 2007-07-29
] .

Work eventually began on the following facilities:

*Indoor training areas
*Medical, Physical and Hydrotherapy areas
*Administration, support and changing areas
*Educational facilities
*Canteen facilities
*Floodlit main practice pitch
*Three full-size pitches
*one full-size artificial pitch
*Two artificial practice areas
*Goalkeeper training area
*Junior practice area

Further Controversy

Work began on the Academy in November 2001 by Gateshead-based building firm Tolent Construction. However only a month later in December, Sunderland enraged the site protesters by resubmitted plans for further amendments to the site [cite news
title = Anger at changed plans for school of football
publisher = The Northern Echo
date = 2001-12-21
url =
accessdate = 2007-07-29
] . The addition of an indoor training "barn" and an on-site hostel were seen by Sunderland to be essential requirements to keeping the site at Academy status. Sunderland claimed that in 1999 these elements were desired but unrealistic, but in 2001 they had been added to the list of essential Academy elements by the FA, and therefore to retain Academy status, Sunderland were obliged to include them in the plans.Sunderland submitted the application in May 2002, and in August the plans were reject by South Tyneside council, who said: "We felt they were inappropriate for the green belt" [cite news
title = Club to appeal over academy
publisher = The Northern Echo
date = 2002-08-12
url =
accessdate = 2007-07-29
] .
Again Sunderland appealed, and a public inquiry was launched in April 2003.
In November of that year, the Secretary of State rejected Sunderland's revised plans [cite news
title = Academy of Light plans halted
publisher = The Northern Echo
date = 2003-11-11
url =
accessdate = 2007-07-29
] [] claiming the new elements would "cause significant harm to the openness and visual amenity of this sensitive part of the green belt.". This ruling came despite Sunderland's argument that similar green belt developments at Manchester United, Arsenal and Middlesbrough had been accepted.
By this point, the initial phase of the academy had been built, with area set aside for the proposed indoor barn and hostel. The ruling meant that in order to retain Academy status, Sunderland would have to find alternative sites for those elements of the academy, or abandon and relocate the entire centre.

Ice rink rescue

In January 2004 Sunderland City Council came to the rescue of Sunderland by offering the disused ice rink at the Crowtree Leisure Centre as a site for the indoor training area. The rink, in the centre of the city, was leased to Sunderland AFC for two-years. The offer effectively saved the club's Academy status.

Environmental Development

During construction, Sunderland enlisted the help of famous Ecologist David Bellamy to advise in the development of the area surrounding the academy.

Wetland was introduced, and water used to wet the pitches at the academy is recycled back into these wetlands. A large area of woodland was also planted, using a variety of tree types. The academy area only accounts for 60 acres of the convert|220|acre|km2|sing=on site. The remainder is a wildlife preserve.


* [ Stadia, Football Academies and Centres of Excellence] - Sport England, 2000
* [ SAFC Academy of Light] - SAFC official site

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