A new £13.5m sports centre proposed by Blackburn College is to be the home of a football centre of excellence for East Lancashire, with its own competitive non-league team.
The college has announced the plan in partnership with ambitious non-league football club AFC Darwen, whose chairman is Wayne Wild, the boss of East Lancashire-based engineering company the WEC Group. The WEC Group is one of the area's main employers. The company and its 12 divisions have 400 staff and a £35m turnover.
The new centre will provide young local players with professional coaching and development facilities alongside the experience of playing in a semi-professional set-up.
The link with the college was negotiated by Wild, AFC Darwen's new chairman and club owner and manager Kenny Langford.
Wild was appointed this month to the North West Counties League Division One Club with a remit to attract local investment and sponsorship.
Students at Blackburn College can apply for a place at the new football centre, which will open in September, with trials beginning in April.
Those who are successful will represent Blackburn College in national competitions and also have the chance to turn out for one of AFC Darwen's sides, including the first team.
Andrew Smith, AFC Darwen first-team coach and former pro-player, will be head coach at the centre, which will use Blackburn College's sporting facilities as well as the club's WEC Anchor Ground.
Wild, whose company also sponsors AFC Darwen, said: "We have worked hard with the college to come up with a model we think ticks all the boxes in terms of progression and opportunity for the students who excel in the trials.
"When I joined AFC Darwen as chairman I spoke about generating ideas and projects to help move the club forward. It's great to have this early home win.
"The work within the community continues, however, as we look to generate a consortium of local business people willing to help move the club forward."
Club manager Langford said: "We want to encourage as many local students as possible to take this opportunity to become part of a semi-professional football set up as we continue to drive forward our vision of a truly community based club."