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Respect, pride and the beautiful game: How football academy is changing young lives

There’s one part of the T6 Football Academy that Hugh Hegarty seems particularly keen to show off as he leads We are Middlesbrough on a tour of the facility – the boot room.

He taps at the sign excitedly as we get there. It clearly means something.

Despite many of the academy’s players wearing the red of Middlesbrough, you can’t help but think about how the ‘Boot Room’ became a word synonymous with footballing success at Liverpool Football Club’s Anfield stadium.

It was the unofficial nerve centre of the club, which bred strong values into the four managers who helped it embark on two decades of dominance over English and European football.

It engrained a culture of success, expectations of high standards – the way to behave, the pride in the shirt.

Hugh – a Belfast native, in charge of Catholic education in Middlesbrough and across Teesside – makes it clear that the Academy is not just about winning trophies or creating professional footballers.

For Hugh, the T6 Academy is itself about culture and identity.

Just like all famous footballing dynasties, it’s about standards.

“If there’s not one player that turns professional, that’s fine as it’s not the point,” Hugh replies when asked if the Academy is aiming to get players into the big time.

“But we’ve a lot of talented boys and girls here so I’m sure some will go on to have a lot of success in the game.

“We’re about instilling pride in our area, in our schools, and in the Academy.

“Education is paramount. They’re here to train and they have the best of facilities to help them be excellent footballers, but they study hard too.

“We’re creating young men and women who have learned to respect themselves, respect each other. They’ll leave here ready to go out into the world.”

Hugh Hegarty and Dave McTiernan at the T6 Football Academy

Hugh Hegarty and Dave McTiernan on the brand-new all-weather pitch

State of the art

Hugh is CEO at the Nicholas Postgate Catholic Academy Trust, which runs Catholic schools in Middlesbrough and across Teesside.

The T6 Academy was launched last summer and investment has seen the installation of a floodlit, state-of-the-art 4G pitch, dedicated strength and conditioning and fitness suites, a video analysis room and revamped changing rooms.

There’s a cafeteria serving healthy, nutritionally balanced food to give players the best chance of sporting and educational success.

The academy is based inside the long-empty St Mary’s sixth form college building in Saltersgill, and each area inside is adorned with the academy badge.

“A phoenix rising from the flames,” Hugh points out.

It’s next door to Trinity Sixth Form where A-Levels and BTECs are delivered to players.

“We’ve invested in all of our schools, across Middlesbrough and the region,” continued Hugh.

“We’re completely committed to our schools and the families at the centre of them. We know our schools and we know this approach here is the right one.”

The new all-weather pitch at the T6 Football Academy in Middlesbrough

The new all-weather pitch at the T6 Football Academy in Middlesbrough

Hugh points to a patch of land adjacent to the new all-weather pitch – it’s where there are plans to build a 200-seater stand for spectators.

Some teams from large local youth football club Boro Rangers have already started playing games at the T6 site, with talks ongoing about bringing its men’s team back to Middlesbrough.

Hugh surveys the brand-new playing surface alongside Head of Football and Sporting Academy Dave McTiernan.

“This is aspirational. We have our school tournaments so boys and girls from our schools will have the chance to play on here, score a goal up there,” Hugh continues.

“I’m proud of what we’ve achieved so far.”

Tapping into what we love

The Academy has a partnership with Middlesbrough Football Club – which sees its teams represent the club in the National Football Youth League.

They’ve already taken on teams representing Premier League clubs like Liverpool, Everton and Leeds United.

But during the day, the players are students – studying for A Levels and other qualifications.

Players Fran Ward and Jake Brunskill, with Connor Simpson, Strength and Conditioning Coach

Players Fran Ward and Jake Brunskill, with Connor Simpson, Strength and Conditioning Coach

Fran Ward, a 16-year-old central midfielder in the girls’ team, said having a balance between football and studies helps her achieve more in both areas.

“During the day I’m concentrating on my work, and you need to because I want to stay in the team,” she said.

“We’ve got everything we need, it’s really good.”

The boys’ first team had beat Accrington Stanley 3-0 in a cup game on the day of Love Middlesbrough’s visit to the Academy, but strength and conditioning coach Connor Simpson still wasn’t happy. Standards hadn’t quite been met.

“First half, we just didn’t start,” he tells me as I ask how the team had played.

Some of the players stood around near the changing rooms smile modestly.

“Second half we were good,” one tells me.

Dave McTiernan grins and uses a football manager’s typical understatement when I speak to him back in his office: “I had to say a few words at half time.”

He continued: “But they’re good lads. We have a cracking group of boys and girls here.

“Obviously, the age they are, they’re going to have ups and downs but we try and teach them the right things.”

Hugh Hegarty and Dave McTiernan at the T6 Football Academy

Hugh Hegarty and Dave McTiernan with the T6 crest – a phoenix rising from the flames

Dave played – and later coached – at Middlesbrough FC’s Academy and played for a number of top semi-professional clubs.

“Football is massive in Middlesbrough. Look at the size of the TJFA (The Teesside Junior Football Alliance, where thousands of young players turn out every weekend).

“I think that’s one of the biggest youth leagues in Europe?

“Having the academy here, what it stands for, is massive.

“Middlesbrough needed something like this – having the facilities, the coaching, being treated as elite footballers gives them that confidence they need to continue with their studies as well.

“That love of football is the hook – and we’re set up to help them succeed.”