CELTIC officials are heralding a "new era" for the club following the official opening of their multi-million pound training facility in Lennoxtown.
The Scottish champions, who used to keep their former training site at inadequate Barrowfield under wraps from signing targets like Pierre van Hooijdonk and Paolo Di Canio, say they now have a complex to rival the best in the world.
Constructed on the former Lennoxtown Hospital site over the past two years, the 50-acre centre reportedly cost 8million and is nestled in Campsie Fells, around 12 miles from Glasgow in East Dunbartonshire. It boasts natural grass and artificial pitches, an indoor training hall, a modern fitness centre, and a hydrotherapy pool.
Celtic will move almost their entire footballing operation to the new premises, including the medical and sport science staff. It means that the club's players will now only visit Celtic Park on match days - something that will perhaps disappoint the many supporters who show up at the stadium on a daily basis to collect autographs before and after the players travel along London Road to nearby Barrowfield.
"It is important to keep the connection to the fans," said Celtic captain Stephen McManus yesterday. "However, the most important thing is that when we go back to Celtic Park we will get a feel for just how special a place it is and we will really appreciate the fans because we won't see them every day."
There was always a sense of disbelief in recent years that a club of Celtic's stature had such basic training facilities. That feeling was reinforced in 2001 when Old Firm rivals Rangers opened their Murray Park complex in Milngavie and again in 2004 when Hearts moved to their Riccarton academy at Heriot-Watt University. Hibs, meanwhile, are close to opening a training complex that will include up to ten outdoor pitches after purchasing a former milk processing plant near Ormiston, East Lothian last year.
McManus, a product of Celtic's youth development system, said that the opening of Lennoxtown was "well overdue" and stressed the importance of having somewhere that the players can relax and feel at home. However, the Scotland defender admitted that he will miss being put through his paces at Barrowfield. "It is a place that I trained at for ten or 11 years so it will always stick in the memory," he said.
Celtic chairman Brian Quinn also refused to condemn Barrowfield. He said: "Barrowfield was not an embarrassment but it was below the standard and level we thought we should have, otherwise we wouldn't be here.
"The main problem was the difficult weather, the cold and ice. On some occasions it would be unusable and it used to irritate managers when that was the case. Now we have undersoil heating and an artificial pitch so it will be used the whole year round."
Celtic agreed conditional missives to buy the 50 acres in East Dunbartonshire in July 2005 and received detailed planning permission for the development in April 2006. The exact benefits of moving to a vastly-improved training facility can only be measured in the fullness of time, but yesterday Celtic manager Gordon Strachan was sure the flit from Barrowfield to Lennoxtown would boost the standard of his team. He was also looking forward to being allowed to focus solely on footballing matters.
"Personally, it means that I can now wholly concentrate on just football," said Strachan, who along with McManus, Quinn and Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell, was on hand yesterday to cut the green ribbon and declare the complex officially open.
"I loved training at Barrowfield, the surface was good but when I was there I got involved in business and football. I can switch my phone off here and just deal with football and so can the players."
The manager added: "We are proud of this, it is fantastic. I'm sure it will help [attract players]. At Aberdeen I trained in the local park and then when I went to Manchester United the training facilities were fantastic so I'm sure that will help. But the standard of your team and the possibility of winning things is important."
Lawwell, who dismissed speculation that Celtic were set to offer Strachan an improved contract as "nonsense", added his praise for the Lennoxtown project, but revealed that there are no plans to expand or refurbish Celtic Park.
"The training facility is fitting for a club of Celtic's stature," he said. "We are thrilled and very proud. It has been a long haul and we have created something very special so it is a great day for the club.
"There are no plans for the stadium at the moment. We are quite happy with the capacity and the facilities we have. Clearly the old stand would be the first priority but at the moment we have other uses for funds that are available."
Quinn - who is due to retire as Celtic chairman after seven years in the post and will be replaced by former Home Secretary John Reid - was also keen to focus on the significance of yesterday's opening.
"We are absolutely delighted to officially open our new Lennoxtown training centre," said Quinn. "This is a very important day for Celtic and one which heralds a new era for the club.
"The new centre is a high-quality facility which befits a club of Celtic's stature and we are sure it will be one from which we will reap great rewards."
• The complex has three full-sized UEFA standard grass pitches, a full-size artificial pitch, an indoor training area and changing rooms.
• It also boasts a gym and fitness suite, physio and medical facilities, a sports science department, classrooms and media facilities.
• Celtic Ladies, a new team launched in June, will play their home games at Lennoxtown.
• The club got the money for the training centre from a successful share issue in 2005 that raised 15 million.
• As a member of the Lennoxtown community, the club will put in place a programme of activities so that local organisations benefit from the site.