TSC is back after a brief and unannounced break (sorry about that) in the wake of a frantic UEFA Euro 2012, and hot on the heels of England’s quarter-final exit it’s time for the first in a four-part series about St George’s Park, what its purpose will be and what it means for the England national team. The site at Burton-upon-Trent in Staffordshire was officially handed over to the Football Association at the beginning of July and now shoulders the burden of revolutionising the fortunes of the English game.
Situated near to Tatenhill Airfield to the west of Burton, the National Football Centre at St George’s Park is a little over 30 miles from Meriden, which proudly claims to be the centre of England. Its chairman is David Sheepshanks the former chairman of Ipswich Town, and on launch day he was on hand to explain to media the foundations upon which SGP has been planned, debated and – at last – built.
With St George’s Park now the go-to reference for optimistic debate about the future of the national team, it’s important not to make assumptions about what the centre is for, and what its limitations will be.
From next season it will be the home of “England”. It is the new training base for the senior national team before each international match, and will also host every other England team at each age level. It is a single focus for a single England, the first crucial step in the rebuilding of our prospects in a structured, intelligent and modern fashion. There, they will enjoy the use of an exact replica of the Wembley pitch as well as a full-size indoor pitch and 60m sprint track, and all the facilities one would expect of a state-of-the-art football centre.
There are eleven lit and heated pitches outdoors, areas for head tennis and goalkeeping training, the unmitigated joy of bleep test zones and more sports science facilities than you can shake a stick it. On top of all that, there are medical and scientific functions that cater for injury treatment, physiotherapy, performance and medical best practice development, and fitness screening. St George’s Park is, for want of a better summary, a centre of excellence for football science and education; SGP is also the new home of FA Learning.
The less glamourous work that will happen throughout the National Football Centre is about improving the Football Association’s approach to the modern game and establishing England as a hub of thought leadership. In my opinion that is enormously important, but the public justification is the gradual improvement of England and English football on the field of play.
St George’s Park, by and large, is not directly a facility for the development of young players, and therefore it has not been constructed with on-site youth development in mind. Instead, Burton is where the FA will coach its coaches, an area in which England’s current status is nothing short of a national disgrace. The numbers of UEFA-qualified coaches in England compared to other nations around Europe effectively amount to our game running on fumes, which for a country of our relative means is frustrating in the extreme. The rubbish so many of them teach kids and the approaches too many of them take are holding England back.
Offering residential courses and up to date theory and methods, the National Football Centre is in an excellent position to at least force English football forwards. We should expect a steady increase in the number of high-level coaches who benefit from ongoing and effective learning, and can in turn pass that on and filter it throughout the game at all levels. It’s difficult not to be broadly optimistic, regardless of the seemingly endless list of questions unearthed by the opening of SGP.
The centre also boasts two hotels: the 86-room economy Hampton (by Hilton) option and the more upmarket 146-room Hilton (also by Hilton), as well as a 500-seat conference centre, a significantly-sized car park and enough seminar rooms to brief a small army. This is serious business, and rightly so. Judging by the marketing materials and plans, St George’s Park is a complex of which we can be genuinely proud.
But it should be recognised for what it is: not the end, just the end of the beginning. SGP is a commitment to increase the number and quality of coaches operating at all levels of the English game. Only from there can we begin talking about a long-term benefit in terms of player development, which – let’s face it – is why we’re all here, watching, writing about and discussing football.
For any of this to have a meaningful rather than cosmetic impact, the FA will need to transform England’s technical, tactical and mental interpretation not just of the game itself, but how it should be embraced. Success won’t be easy to come by, but improvement is certainly within England’s grasp. That’s the second step in the right direction – investing in St George’s Park was the first.