SOME students, during their time at Leeds, never play, let alone set foot in the Weetwood playing fields which are located just two miles north of the University’s campus. This is the hub for most of the sports action for the University’s Gryphon teams where each week, tackles are made, goals scored, conversions kicked, friendships formed, hardships endured and victories won. Even most Gryphons themselves, however, have never stumbled across the office at the pavilion, where a certain Gawaine MacKenzie-Hogg, sat at his desk, is masterminding his personal mission to promote Weetwood as a centre for university, regional and elite sport.
The latest development that Gawaine has been involved in is a new water-based astro pitch. At first, this might sound pretty boring, but on the contrary it will prove a major landmark in the history and development of sport at Leeds University. The pitch, due to its water-based nature, has been fully certified by the FIH – the Federation of International Hockey – which will host international fixtures and with it establish Weetwood as one of the most impressive sporting venues in the country.
Gawaine was determined to bring a state-of-the-art playing facility to the home of sport at the University of Leeds not only to attract more professional sport, but as a way of supporting the grassroots of England’s junior hockey programme, which itself feeds into the University level. “We were encouraged by wanting to secure international junior games because of the Olympic legacy,” he says.
To qualify for international playing status, the former sand-dressed pitch had to be extended by five metres to build a ‘run-out’ to comply with international hockey rules. A six-metre fence has been installed to improve game-time continuity and even the turquoise colour was chosen for a reason (it being the closest colour to the green Gryphon brand). And, although the new £572,000 pitch doesn’t include seating for spectators, Gawaine doesn’t see this as a problem. It will in fact mimic the current set-up of most hockey stadia up and down the country, where temporary seating is brought in for big matches. A perfect example of this is Lee Valley, the old Olympic stadium, where the European Championships for hockey were held this year.
With Weetwood already home to England North Hockey, the idea of installing an international standard pitch at the pavilion was perhaps overdue. However, despite the prestige of the pitch and the sporting icons it will inevitably attract to Weetwood, Gawaine is determined to not get carried away with it all. “If we get England training here – then great, that’s brilliant for me – but at the end of the day, the most important thing is that we’ve got a global FIH-approved pitch for our students to play on.” And, with Leeds University’s hockey society being the largest of any university society in the country, it’s no surprise that Gawaine pulled out all the stops to make the new hockey pitch happen.
The new hockey pitch is part of the very big picture that Gawaine is painting at Leeds University. Since joining the team in 2008, he has striven to put Weetwood and all its 100-acre playing potential on the map and to encourage students to wholly appreciate it – something that can’t always be said.
“The drive is to keep improving the facilities for the benefit of the students and really enhance what is essentially one of the biggest grass expanses in the university sector – if not the biggest,” he says. Two years ago, extensive work had been continually been carried out on the rugby pitch to bring an England rugby training programme to the complex, hosted by Stuart Lancaster. It is this sort of prestige that undoubtedly allowed Weetwood to put a foot in the door and welcome the Scottish rugby union team, whose team trained at the pavilion for three days prior to their Rugby World Cup game at Elland Road back in September. The park’s two football pitches have also recently had extensive improvements too, and the cricket pitch is the next big step.
Already home to Yorkshire Cricket and the University’s Cricket Club programme, the cricket pitch is the next big step, and Gawaine hopes to secure first-class county games at Weetwood. “I really want Sports Park Weetwood to be home for Leeds University sports clubs, where they get treated professionally, and to raise the quality and experience for the students.”
“If students enjoy good facilities whilst at university, they’re more inclined to stay in sport and form that link as a student and that, at the end of the day, is what we want.”
Featured image: Fiona Tomas