CEO club visit - Vale Royal AC

Situated in the heart of Cheshire, Vale Royal AC were the latest club to be visited by England Athletics CEO Chris Jones as part of his series of trips to clubs around the country.

Operating at two sites, the Knights Grange sports complex in Winsford and Mid-Cheshire College in Hartford, Northwich, Vale Royal caters for more than 400 members, ranging from under 11s to seniors and masters athletes.

Chris, accompanied by England Athletics North Area Manager Emma Davenport, arrived at Knights Grange on a cold, wet Thursday evening and was welcomed by Harry Evans, one of Vale Royal’s team of dedicated coaches, who opened up the facility prior to a busy training night. With the club’s endurance section preparing for the Northern Athletics Cross Country Relays to be held the following weekend under the watchful eyes of Shaun McGrath and Andy Carter (European Bronze medallist in the 800m in 1971), it wasn’t long before the small portacabin changing facility was packed with athletes preparing to brave the weather and the dark to train for events across a range of disciplines.

“Most will do an easy session tonight, with us entering 16 teams at the weekend,” explained Shaun, who will no doubt have been delighted with the fact that the club’s senior men went on to take a hard-earned bronze medal, the team’s first ever podium finish in an area championships. “We can have up to 90 distance athletes training here on any given night.”

Vale Royal are committed to offering coaching in all areas of the sport and one person who has been welcomed wholeheartedly is Stuart Jakeman, who first came to the club with his son Matt and now assists Harry in looking after the sprinters. “I’ve been coaching here for about four or five years now,” he says. “We’ve got various age groups, from under 14s to senior men and we’re trying, for the first time this year, to encourage 400m runners as well as the 100m and 200m athletes. It means we can better help athletes towards their aims.”

Despite the time of year and the inclement weather, Nick Kelly, who coaches javelin, was also present with his son Jordan and his daughter Bethan. Completing a final session before a hard-earned winter break, Jordan explained how he came to be part of the club: “I do javelin and discus and I’ve been a member of the club for 4 years. I started as an U11 and now I’m U15. I started by running, but my primary school teacher told me that I had a good arm and that I should try javelin, and I enjoyed it. I compete in the Cheshire league and I’ve done about 15 open competitions this year.”

In addition to the Cheshire League for track and field, Vale Royal compete in the North Staffordshire Cross Country League, the Manchester Area Cross Country League and the many Northern area championships across all disciplines, while they have also hosted the Cheshire County Cross Country Championships on numerous occasions.

Yet, despite their success, large membership and commitment to the sport, Vale Royal don’t have access to a synthetic all-weather surface on which to train, meaning on the night of Chris’s visit, the cinder track at Knights Grange was extremely wet and far from ideal for delivering the best experience for members. Facilities and raising the requisite funds for improvement are therefore at the forefront of club Chair Alan Parsons’ mind, especially given that the track at Mid-Cheshire is a substandard clay surface. “We desperately need improvement of Knights Grange and we’re also seeking investment for an all-weather facility in Hartford,” Alan confirmed.

Yet despite the challenges faced, Vale Royal have made huge strides in recent years and Alan is justifiably pleased with the progress. “At the end of the 2009-10 year I took over as chairman,” he explained. “We had fewer than 50 U11s and a membership of 260. Since then we’ve worked really hard. We now have over 60 U11s and a waiting list of over 60. We also unfortunately have a waiting list for U13 multi-events, too.”

However, despite the capacity issues, the club has found innovative ways to include as many youngsters and their families as possible. “We operate the waiting list in two ways,” said Alan. “We deploy a strict first come, first served approach and we also design new things for people on the waiting list who desperately want to join but who we can’t fit in. We created an associate membership for those that want to run, to run with their families or with the club on a Sunday morning. We’ve seen a surge in that activity and we’re actively marketing it, because if we can get families into the club we’ve got potential volunteers, but more importantly if we have parents active, then the kids will stay active, too. We are passionate about encouraging anybody to join us and we want to be seen as a big family.”

Vale Royal clearly understand the importance in investing in their younger age groups and the approach is paying off: “This is all part of a strategy to keep the U11s in the system. All the committee members and coaches have been committed to getting that right and we now have a wonderful pyramid with strong foundations. We attract a lot of seniors as well as juniors, but unlike many, we retain the juniors. We’ve also got a wonderful lady called Jacky Thorn who is essentially managing the U11s and she’s essentially doing the membership uniquely for them.”

The club is therefore thriving thanks to their army of volunteers and Chris Jones was able to see more of them in action after making his way to Hartford to see Jacky and her coaching colleagues Sarah Gibbs, Sarah Walker and Matt Sweeting put the U11s through their paces at the indoor centre alongside Dave Copsey, Vale Royal’s Children in Athletics Coach.

Chris Jones was impressed with what he saw. “The effort of the hard working volunteers at Vale Royal AC is really paying dividends,” he said. “Part of the purpose of my club visits is to see how clubs work on ordinary training nights and Vale Royal was a superb example of all that can be great about athletics clubs. There is obvious passion for the sport and the members clearly benefit from that.”

However, Chris also acknowledged that challenges Vale Royal face with regard to the available facilities, particularly tracks at the Winsford and Hartford sites: “It is alarming to see athletes and coaches having to work on poorly maintained cinder and clay tracks and without easy access to changing facilities. England Athletics will ensure that local partners are aware of the problem and will try to facilitate support as best we can to ensure the club has facilities that are truly worthy of the outstanding contributions that the hard working volunteers make for its athletes.”