Soccer giant’s goal is the Northeast

Scotland’s Celtic FC team coach Neil Lennon posses with Jose Ibarra and a photo of what the Philadelphia SportsZone project looks like. The project involves the eventual construction of a multi-sport arena in the Northeast, Friday, August 10, 2012, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

A European soccer powerhouse intends to make Northeast Philadelphia its first-ever foreign home.

Celtic Football Club of Glasgow, Scotland, on Friday announced plans to team with Philadelphia Sports Zone to create a youth soccer academy at a yet-to-be built multi-sport venue. The announcement came ahead of Saturday’s exhibition match at Lincoln Financial Field between the reigning Scottish champions and their Spanish counterparts Real Madrid.

Mayfair resident and St. Hubert High School graduate Maggie Coughlan and her business partner, Philadelphia Soccer Club coach Jose Ibarra, plan to build the Sports Zone in the Northeast, although they have yet to confirm a site for the proposed indoor/outdoor complex.

The duo lost out to a consortium including Holy Family University in a recent bidding process for the former Liddonfield Homes public housing complex in Upper Holmesburg, but they remain confident that they will open the new youth academy in 2012.

“On the land acquisition, we’re working with several people now,” Coughlan said during Friday’s news conference at a Penn’s Landing hotel. “The Celtic academy will be started here in this country by the end of this year.”

Celtic manager Neil Lennon, along with current first-team players Charlie Mulgrew and Thomas Rogne, attended Friday’s media event, as did their club’s youth academy coach and development officer, Greig Robertson, and youngsters representing several Northeast-based teams including Danubia Soccer Club, Parkwood Athletic Association and Academy Sabres.

“All teams, all events, all soccer programs out of the facility will be under the guise of Celtic Football Club,” said Robertson.

Financial terms of the Sports Zone/Celtic FC partnership were not disclosed.

Early last year, Coughlan and Ibarra revealed their plans to develop a $10 million, 20-acre sports, recreation and retail complex in Upper Holmesburg. At the time, they said they were in discussions with another high-profile European soccer club, Italy’s AC Milan, to serve as its U.S.-based youth academy. The architectural design firm Ewing Cole supplied detailed schematic drawings.

But even then, the developers had not found and confirmed a site for the project. Coughlan and Ibarra showed the plans publicly during a meeting of the Upper Holmesburg Civic Association, which endorsed the concept, even without a specific location for it. Coughlan said they wanted to build it along Torresdale Avenue near Tolbut Street, but they had no agreement with a specific landowner.

Later in 2011, the Philadelphia Housing Authority placed the 32-acre former Liddonfield Homes site, at Torresdale Avenue and Megargee Street, up for bid. The Sports Zone proposal was one of three finalists considered by PHA, which ultimately selected the one involving Holy Family University.

“Through this whole [time], there have been plenty of doors slammed, but Jose and I believed that we should keep going,” Coughlan said. “It’s a great concept — the Philadelphia Sports Zone — and we want to bring this to the Northeast. We want kids to be able to come and have a place to play.”

Sports Zone’s partnership with Celtic developed from a simple “cold call.”

Coughlan, whose father was born and raised in Glasgow, grew up in a household of Celtic FC supporters.

“The uniqueness and strangeness is as simple as Maggie picking up a phone and calling Celtic Park,” Robertson said. “And a year to the day from that phone call, we’re launching something exciting.”

State Rep. Kevin Boyle (D-172nd dist.) hopes the Sports Zone will come to his district. Like Celtic FC, Boyle has Irish roots. Boyle’s father was born in Ireland. Meanwhile, Celtic traces its roots to 1888, when an Irish-born Marist priest, Brother Walfred, created the club to raise money for the poor in Glasgow’s East End.

“We’re trying to do all we can and trying to work out how we can get this in the 172nd district,” Boyle said. “But if we don’t, I want it to be somewhere in Northeast Philadelphia. This would put Northeast Philadelphia on the map because Celtic is an international soccer club.”

Though already considered a global club with supporter groups in North America, the Far East, Africa, Australia and elsewhere in Europe, Celtic expects the youth academy to broaden its profile in the United States.

“It’s something that’s been needed as far as football and Celtic. We want to push the brand as far as we can,” said Neil Lennon, the club’s first-team manager.

Saturday’s game was Celtic’s third preseason “friendly” match in the Philadelphia region in recent years. Lennon was a player when Celtic defeated Manchester United 2–1 at Lincoln Financial Field in July 2004. In July 2010, Lennon managed Celtic’s 1–0 loss to the host Philadelphia Union.

“I love coming here,” said the Irish-born Lennon. “It’s a wonderful sporting city and the facilities are excellent as well. There’s a huge Irish-American population here, and looking at the kids in Celtic tops, it’s really amazing.”

Celtic hopes the Philly-based youth academy will help it develop talent for the future. The club would have first crack at signing elite-level players produced there to professional contracts. In Scotland, the club competes at several youth levels and in women’s leagues in addition to the men’s senior level. Further, the club could profit by selling the contracts of its young players to other clubs.

The vast majority of players at the youth academy will never see the professional levels, but they will benefit in other ways.

“It keeps them active and fit and keeps them busy, off the streets,” said Stacey Shoemaker, whose children play soccer in the Northeast. “And you could get them a college scholarship, you never know — maybe even high school.”

“There are only a very small percentage of youth players in our academy in Glasgow who make the professional ranks,” Robertson said. “(But) we will assist their social development, their physical development and they will be better soccer players.” ••

Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com