In football-mad Manchester, a popular indoor venue faces closure
One of the best vantage points for Manchester's booming skyline is the top of Barton Bridge, where the city's orbital motorway crosses the Manchester Ship Canal. The imposing bulk of Old Trafford, for example, stands two miles away, to the right of which are the new towers of Media City at Salford Quays.
Closer still is the giant Trafford Centre shopping mall but before them all is a large, warehouse-type structure. Its exterior features four five a-side pitches and inside are a further 18. Known locally as "the JJB" or "the DW" after previous titles, this is the Powerleague Trafford Sportsdome.
Since opening in 1997, the facility has been used by just about every footballer in Manchester. Paul Pogba has played there with friends and former United youngster Ravel Morrison was a regular. Professional teams from Rochdale to Bury have using it for training -- Oldham Athletic were frequent users at the start of this year -- while Manchester United, Manchester City and Everton regularly send scouts on a Saturday morning to seek out future talents.
The facility is also used by basketball's Manchester Giants and the Great Britain softball team and has also played host to professional rugby side, but its lifeblood has long been the 300 football teams that use it on a weekly basis, from junior boys and girls on a Saturday morning to adults at night, who play in five or seven-a-side leagues until 11 p.m., but the Sportsdome also attracts corporate and public money.
An edition of Neymar's global five-a-side tournament was held there in February and there are "Gillette pitches," on which amateur players can "showcase clinical finishing and precision" to feature in adverts for the razor company. Next month, a free-of-charge event for goalkeepers with former England international Chris Kirkland will take place.
"The true roots of football are at Powerleague," claims the company's website, and not without reason.
So it was with stunned disbelief that users reacted earlier this month, when told that the centre would close in January 2019. The local community was outraged -- "Can't believe this is closing," Man United's Demi Mitchell tweeted -- as well as confused; the centre appeared to be flourishing and was packed every night last week.
This is the reality at grassroots level on the doorstep of two of the biggest, richest clubs in the world. There has never been more money in the English game and yet the largest indoor facility in the country's biggest football city is about to close and be replaced by an adventure centre.
With respect to those who might be attracted to use the promised caving, canyoning, canoeing, deep-water surfing, ice and rock climbing and zip wire facilities, an acute shortage of all-weather football facilities in Manchester will be exacerbated by the change.
News that the Trafford site would close followed the announcement of similar fates for 13 Powerleague facilities, including one in Whalley Range, South Manchester, which will result in more than 100 people losing their jobs across the UK.
The sites will shut through a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA), an insolvency measure used to close under-performing units. Powerleague said: "The CVA has been designed to deliver a refinanced, restructured business without which Powerleague would not have a viable future." Powerleague chief executive Christian Rose said. "Closing sites is a difficult decision to make and we are supporting those personally affected."
Online and on the ground, people are furious as they face up to a winter without an indoor practice venue.
"I was shocked when I heard," Damian Preston, secretary of Urmston Meadowside junior FC, told ESPN. "It's so well used by junior teams. The Manchester FA use it, lots of junior leagues. I've seen Phil Jagielka there, Robbie Savage, Phil Neville. They watch their kids there. I'm angry, too. What do we do now, with winter already here? The facilities are not great around Trafford and there are not enough all-weather pitches."
"We read about fighting childhood obesity and getting kids away from screens," Preston continued. "We did something about that. We are a successful, long-standing, junior football club with 700 registered players in 55 teams. We're run by volunteers, we're doing our bit and we feel that we've had a rug pulled from under us. We have many questions and no answers."
ESPN has been told that the Manchester FA are very concerned about the situation, while almost 7,000 people have signed a petition organised by Rachel Robinson, an administrator at nearby Urmston Meadowside Junior football club.
"We'd like to raise awareness that this will massively impact the local grassroots community," the petition states. "There are several local teams with young players to veterans that will now struggle to find a place to train during evenings and through the winter."
The land on which the Trafford centre stands was all but derelict when it opened, but now features numerous leisure facilities and hotels, as well as the UK's third-largest shopping centre. A link road has also been built, as has a new stadium for Salford Red Devils rugby league club.
Much of the land is owned by The Peel Group, an infrastructure, transport and real estate company.
"We understand the disappointment surrounding the likely closure of the Powerleague soccer dome, as indeed, many of our employees and their families use the facility and we agree it has been a great asset to have within TraffordCity over the past 20 years," Peel said in a statement to ESPN. "The whole of the building is let to DW Sports and therefore Powerleague is a sub tenant of DW Sports -- not a direct Peel tenant. We are working with DW Sports to attract a similar football operator and other leisure uses for the benefit of the area and community. Unfortunately, Powerleague, as a whole company, has now entered into a Creditor Voluntary Agreement, so its closure is not just affecting the Powerleague here, in TraffordCity, but all of its operations across the UK. As part of our commitment to assist DW Sports in attracting quality operators we are planning to make a significant investment into the refurbishment of the building to provide a better overall facility for the long term. Please be assured we are doing all we can to assist DW Sports."
A DW Fitness First spokesperson told ESPN: "We are aware that Peel Holdings have plans to develop the site and improve the leisure experience at the location. We ourselves will be refurbishing our gym during 2019 as part of this upgrade, but understand that Powerleague have decided not to enter into a new lease when their current lease expires in the New Year."
Meanwhile, the protests have reached Trafford Borough Council.
"Whilst this is a business decision, which is not within the Council's control, we fully recognise the potential impact on the health and wellbeing of Trafford residents and particularly on that of our local children and young people," Catherine Hynes, the council's Deputy Leader, told ESPN. "This is a much loved and well used community facility and we are working with a number of partners to try to find a solution.
"Since the recent announcements were made, I and my Council colleagues, have been inundated with concerns from worried parents whose children regularly use the indoor pitches. Just yesterday morning, my 14-year-old son Joseph played football there with his friends, as he often does. I know the concerns of residents and local football teams are magnified by the fact that winter is on the way.
"Although Powerleague is a private company and the Council has not taken this decision, the Leader of the Council has met with Trafford Leisure Trust, as well as with some of our local schools to discuss the matter. Senior Council Officers have also met with Peel Holdings and Powerleague to stress how important this facility is to the local community."
Jimmy Khan, a former Pakistan international, is vice chair of Urmston Meadowside and its football development officer, A-licence coach and football mentor.
"Three hundred teams use the JJB every week; I play there three times a week myself," he tells ESPN. "We've spoken to staff from there and they are all stunned. Shocked. We found out at the start of November at precisely the point when we have to limit the use of our own grass pitches because they are not properly drained. We usually decamp to JJB for winter training and often don't come out of there until March. Now, we have nowhere to go; it's like we're losing our main facility."
It is not that the facilities are particularly impressive in the Powerdome; several regular users told ESPN that nets around the pitches were frayed and there had been little investment. The rental price -- £69 per pitch, per hour -- was viewed as expensive. However, there is very little else in the area.
"We run a fantastic community club which makes a huge difference to local people, but we see such a low level of investment in Trafford," Khan said. "There are more facilities in Sheffield. We need indoor facilities in Trafford. Or, at least third- or fourth-generation, all-weather pitches. It's vital to the development of young footballers.
"I'm also disappointed that Man United and Man City haven't made any comments. The place is full of kids wearing their shirts. Scouts spot kids there and take them away to their academies. Where are they going to spot them now when it closes?"
All is not lost just yet and the possibility remains of a change of heart.
"Powerleague are keen to continue operating at the Trafford Sports Dome and are delighted our customers are campaigning for us to stay," a Powerleague spokesperson told ESPN on Monday. "We are currently in conversation with the landlord and hopefully we can agree on a suitable outcome for all parties."
That would be a welcome winter present for the thousands of footballers who, otherwise, face being left out in the cold.