As Manchester United prepare for another massive game against Liverpool on Sunday, Jim Gracey gains a rare insight on Sir Alex Ferguson’s top secret Carrington training ground
The first thing that strikes you about Manchester United's multi-million pound, hi-tech Carrington training ground is that nothing actually strikes you at all.
The noisy neighbours down the road aren't hard to spot.
Manchester City's facility, also on the fringes of Carrington village, near the airport, is as obvious as their wealth.
It almost shouts directions to the rival camp on the same, winding stretch of country road — and just as well.
No signs mark the red half of Carrington, camouflaged by an electricity sub-station on one side and a chemical plant on the other.
Locals call it Fortress Carrington. And like all the best military installations, you wouldn't know it was there.
Welcome to the secret world of Fergie. The 2010 football version of Churchill's war room.
Here is where a different kind of European campaign is meticulously plotted.
Where the combatants are groomed, honed and prepared for battle; where they are scientifically equipped with the ultimate physical tools for the job and rewarded for their labours with Presidential-style comforts.
Getting past the remotely controlled security barrier, a quarter mile from the nerve centre, is by invitation only — our names checked by intercom against the day's visitor list, while, behind our idling, old taxi cab, Wes Brown waited patiently in his top of the range Audi to gain entry to his workplace.
The public arrivals area could not be less public, and beyond that, to borrow another Churchillian analogy, an iron curtain descends.
A 2.4 kilometre, high wire fence and 30,000 trees hide Fortress Carrington from the prying eyes of the media and unscrupulous opponents as tactics and game plans are worked on.
Autograph-hunting fans, once indulged by the players as they waited at the security barriers, are now banned. Not so much unwelcome as spoiled for them by the professional sellers of signed sports memorabilia who quickly cottoned on to a get-rich opportunity.
Nothing but nothing is allowed to deflect Sir Alex Ferguson, his army of coaches, dieticians, sports scientists, hospital-size medical back-up and, of course, his players, from the job in hand.
Warning notices, by order of Sir Alex, bar even family and agents from the training area while the players are in residence.
Journalists, in particular, are persona non grata.
But the Northern Ireland Milk Cup has always opened doors at Manchester United and particularly with Sir Alex.
With BBC colleague Grant Cameron, I joined Milk Cup committee men Victor Leonard and Jim Sandford on a courtesy call to present the United boss with an inscribed Tyrone Crystal memento, marking his and the club's 21-year association with the famed youth tournament — and to secure the entry of a United team again this year, which they did.
Astonishingly, on the day his team prepared to face AC Milan, we also found the doors of the Carrington inner sanctum thrown open to us.
What an insight into the behind the scenes workings of a modern day Premier League and European football giant that provided.
Space age does not begin to describe the high performance engine that powers Manchester United from behind the fences across the 108-acre site.
Driven by a factory-size 200-strong workforce, when you hear recent visitor, the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt, was impressed, you get the idea.
Fourteen football pitches with undersoil heating, two indoor 3G pitches, training and rehabilitation areas, physiotherapy and massage rooms and remedial and hydrotherapy pools.
Squash and basketball courts, sauna, steam and weight rooms, a restaurant for staff and players (every morsel scientifically approved to the last calorie) as well as conference rooms, offices and classrooms, and a TV studio to interview players and staff for MUTV.
Academy chief Dave Bushell, another great friend of the Milk Cup, takes us on the grand tour while the players nap ahead of the game that night.
“On the day of a game, they'll come in and do only stretches and light work,” Dave explains.
“Only those not involved in the game or injured will be here.”
And as if to prove the point, a hamstrung Michael Owen limps out to his lift while later we come across a solitary Owen Hargreaves, soaking in the bath, after the latest treatment and workout that hopefully bring him closer to his comeback date.
Through the busy laundry, the boot room, every pair named to the famous feet that fill them, on into the first team dressing room and another amazing discovery.
A maroon-coloured tardis, into which one player is locked at a time for a fix of artificial sunlight — not to boost their tans but their Vitamin D levels.
“We have experts in everything here,” says Dave. “From their eyes to their feet, the players are constantly checked over for any change that can affect their performance. Likewise their diets and training.
“The theories change every year. This year, exercise bikes are the big thing — they do a lot of work on those.
“Sir Alex does like to embrace new ideas and methods, though sometimes I think he just goes along with some of them. He's one of the first in every morning on his bike, mind you.
“The medical side is also important. At this stage of the season, on any given day, we'll have players nursing knocks, bumps and bruises. It's like a conveyor belt.”
Psychology also plays a vital role in the DNA of Carrington.
As you walk the corridors, the legend of Manchester United is everywhere, reminding the young players coming through the Academy ranks of the glorious history they've been chosen to perpetuate.
Larger than life images of the greats stare down from every side and the heart swells at the sight of our own red legends . . . George Best, Sammy McIlroy, Jimmy Nicholl, Norman Whiteside and Jackie Blanchflower.
What an achievement to have your picture adorn the walls of the training ground of the world's most famous club, so take a bow the blond, afro-haired cherub that was once David Jeffrey, standing shoulder to shoulder with a young Whiteside in the youth team class of '81, and, further along, Keith Gillespie.
And everywhere, strategically placed and enlarged for effect, is the iconic last picture of the Busby Babes, lined up for their final match in Belgrade, some never to return beyond the ill-fated homeward stopover in Munich.
The grainy, black and white image has been digitally enhanced, colouring up the red shirts and in the process, leaving the goalkeeper in his dark shirt as the standout figure — one Harry Gregg of Windsor Avenue, Coleraine.
A reminder of the links between Manchester, the Milk Cup and Coleraine and the absolute necessity to ensure they remain intact, both for the good of the town and the tournament, after this week's news of a temporary Finals night switch to Ballymena.
It's not just young stars they breed at Carrington. Two lagoons have attracted flocks of Canadian geese, who wait to be fed crusts every morning, totally unimpressed by, and oblivious to, the superstar feet clattering by.
This then is the road to Manchester United stardom, a place of contrasts, ordinary on the outside, exceptional on the inside.
A narrow, single lane track leads in and out and few are fortunate to travel along it.
So why so many passing bays?
“Ah,” says our escort out. “Roy Keane.
“He stopped for no-one on his way out after training. Bombed straight down the road.”
They learn a different kind of passing game at Carrington these days.