Ronan George looks at an ambitious plan to turn the University of Birmingham into a centre of sporting excellence...

Sport at the University of Birmingham is set to take off this year as Birmingham seeks to strengthen its position as the region's major sporting university.

Birmingham has a proud sporting history and was the first university in the United Kingdom to have a coordinated physical education programme.

But rather than rest on the reputation garnered over the better part of a century, the University of Birmingham is aggressively seeking to replace the amateur ethos with a modern and professional approach, designed to maximise the potential of every sportsman and woman who walks through the gates.

At the forefront of this approach is director of sport Zena Wooldridge and the new marketing supremo, Glen O'Donovan.

While acknowledging that much work needs to be done to close the gap on other universities, Wooldridge is confident that Birmingham can develop a strong sporting brand of its own.

Birmingham's plan, she says, will not be influenced by rival universities at Bath and Loughborough. If anything, the potential at Birmingham is greater owing to the fact that it is the nation's second city with a greater catchment of youngsters.

It is Birmingham's aim, according to Wooldridge: "to be recognised as the biggest multi-sporting site in the region and the country." To this end, they will be assisted by the Government-backed Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme.

The scheme aims to assist the most talented young athletes as they attempt to combine a sporting and educational career.

It is Wooldridge's hope that A-level students showing sporting promise will be drawn to Birmingham, where she says they will receive: "the complete package, with good coaches, an excellent Sportex course with good links to governmental bodies, strong mentoring support and the promise that (you) will not be a tadpole in a big pool."

Working alongside Woolridge to achieve the new vision is South African-born O'Donovan, who has many years' experience in promoting and marketing sport both here and in South Africa.

It is his belief that marketing will become a bigger tool in modern higher education, as universities seek to attract the many more students now looking for university places. O'Donovan believes that a successful marketing campaign for the various university teams will, in time, encourage a greater sense of loyalty to one's university for even those with no real interest in sport.

It is his dream that, in years to come, both students and local residents from Selly Oak and Edgbaston will turn out to support the plethora of university teams and to revel in the sight of tomorrow's sporting heroes.

In this vision, O'Donovan is seeking to replicate the American college system where thousands turn out to watch football or basketball matches in stadia that would not look out of place in the Premiership. The bond between locals, students and the university is strengthened to the benefit of all sides.

O'Donovan is also keen to stress that Birmingham's drive for sporting excellence will not be at the detriment of relations with local residents.

As things stand, they are able to make use of sporting facilities at the university's Munrow Sports Centre. With the improvement of facilities over time, th public will be encouraged to attend and to take pride in Birmingham's attempts to improve its' standing.

The success of London's 2012 Olympic bid has added extra impetus to the country's sporting aims as a whole, with O'Donovan saying: "As far as the UK is concerned, any government plans to tackle obesity or to encourage lifestyle changes will be boosted. There will be numerous benefits."

Both the Second City and its' university can benefit from the 2012 Olympics according to Wooldridge, since it already contains facilities and is likely to have much more by the time of the Olympics, that can assist in a pre-Olympic camp for any team from around the world.

And who, from the university, should we look out for in 2012 to bring home success for both country and region?

According to Richard Gwyn, the University sports scholarship officer, 800 metre runner Charlotte Moore is one who could achieve Olympic glory if her development continues in the same vein.

She has already gained experience at the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002 and the 2003 World Championships in Paris.

Others who will also be looking forward to making a name for themselves in the summer of 2012 are the current University Sportsman of the Year, cyclist John Hill, already a national junior champion and British Universities champion gymnast David Massam, who is the British senior rings champion.

Gwyn is also keen to emphasise the university's aspirations for local students who may never have considered undertaking any higher education courses.

The Widening Participation Unit offers local students who show sporting promise in certain geographical areas an opportunity to attend the University by accepting lesser grades if they attend a summer school prior to taking up their place at the University.

Whatever the future holds for the sporting aims of the University of Birmingham, all parties are agreed that these are exciting times to be involved in the world of university sport.