"The great thing about young people", said Sir Alex Ferguson, setting the tone for an optimistic day, "is that they always surprise you. It's wonderful". Manchester United has devoted space at Old Trafford to one of the Government's Playing For Success centres, intended to help push up standards in literacy and numeracy, among other things. And the opening day of the new centre at Old Trafford, was as busy as a match day in some other places. Sir Alex was relaxed and urbane, the tetchy tension of his half-time interviews completely banished after another successful season had finished.
Symbols are important. The centre is decorated with posters of players with homilies under each. Dwight York talks about respect for others. David Beckham tells kids to work hard. That won't cut any ice with tough sixth formers, but it will with younger students.
Associating football success and hard work with Manchester United could help in a small way to create a new attitude to learning, at least that is what is hoped - pound;15 million will be spent on these initiatives nationally and there will be 39 similar rooms across the country. They will touch only a few children, but their existence is important. There will be lessons to be learnt from them about motivation. Sponsorship of the United centre must have been easy. Most commercial firms would pay to have their products associated with the charismatic club and a great deal of the equipment will come from sponsors.
At the opening the children sat at the computers looking overwhelmed, surrounded by press, business people and mayoral chains. They just kept looking round, hoping for a famous face.
Sir Alex strolled into the well appointed rooms with computers on every desk followed by club chairman Martin Edwards. They circulated, bending to talk to the children, looking at the computer screens discussing the work. Eventually the entourage of the Secretary of State swept in, plaques were unveiled, then to themain room for speeches.
Martin Edwards, club chairman, says quite bluntly that this is not a gimmick, that United are in this for the long haul.
David Blunkett, remarkable as ever, was word perfect. He joked with Ferguson about football in Manchester and Sheffield in that male bonding kind of way. Ferguson presented Blunkett with a No 7 United shirt.
Nevertheless, Blunkett has a job to do. When he took the rostrum he had an announcement: "Today I am pleased to announce that we are not only going to extend our commitment to Playing for Success beyond the original three years - but we are also going to take it a step further and invite other football clubs and other sports to get involved - rugby, basketball, ice hockey, netball, and any sport which can bring education and sport together to benefit children. We have written to local authorities inviting them to get involved and want centres up and running by summer".
The centres will run for six four-hour sessions per week. There is a full-time centre manager and four student mentors will be on site at all times. There is an IT technician, an assistant to provide cleaning and refreshments. The equipment for each centre is 20 computerised work stations, together with CD-Roms, photocopying facilities, scanners, colour printers, fax and telephone connections and an Internet link.
Nigel Ward, chief executive of Granada Learning, has no doubts about the centres: "We have decided to help about a dozen centres. Football clubs are ideal places for learning centres: they are not here today, gone tomorrow places". Granada Learning has given both hardware and software.
Blunkett is also convinced that this is a good strategy. The evaluation of the first six centres found that there were improvements in reading and numeracy among children attending and improved attitudes to learning.
Manchester United FC www.manutd.com
Playing for Success www.dfee.gov.ukplayingclubs.htm