FA opens doors on academy to 'inspire and stimulate'
Governing body has big plans for England's new St George's Park training base after a string of false starts
It is a lot of mud and half-finished buildings, but by September the FA hopes St George's Park (SGP) will be one of the best sports facilities in the world. For the first time in almost two years, the FA opened up SGP – their prospective new football centre near Burton-upon-Trent – to the press yesterday. Building started in January and the 400 workers on the 330-acre site are expected to finish by August. SGP will be an "education hub for English football", according to David Sheepshanks, the man who has driven the project.
The FA wants to make clear exactly what function SGP will perform... and what it won't
The England team will train there, as well as all the FA's junior, women's and disability teams. New coaches and referees will be developed there. It will host England's leading sports science facility. The League Managers' Association is moving to an office there and the Professional Footballers' Association have contributed to funding.
The SGP is not a latter-day Lilleshall or an English Clairefontaine. It will not be a residential site for developing young footballers. That is what the clubs' academies do.
The project costs £105m but it will have to survive as an independent business
After the collapse of the plans for the original National Football Centre – for which the site in East Staffordshire was originally bought – Sheepshanks refined the new business model to include outside investment including two Hilton hotels with a combined total of 228 rooms. The England team will get priority but the plan is that SGP will be used as a destination for football teams from all over the world as well as across different sports.
Umbro and BT have already signed up as partners and Sheepshanks will shortly announce the new medical partner for SGP. They aim to establish the country's first "F" mark sports facility – graded by Fifa – specialising in treatment, rehabilitation and research.
The FA has big plans for SGP
SGP also includes a multi-purpose sports venue. Beyond that is a full-size indoor pitch, which opens out on one side on to the Staffordshire countryside. Outdoors there are 11 full-size pitches, one of which is exclusively for the use of the senior England team and is laid out to the exact measurements of the Wembley pitch. Three pitches are for community use and Burton Albion will continue to train there.
As well as a gym in each hotel there are three further gyms linked to the sports science facility: a cardiovascular gym, a rehab gym and a biomechanics and diagnostics gym. The hydrotherapy pools are, Sheepshanks said yesterday, among the best in the world. Unlike many club training grounds there will also be a library for coaching archive material.
The trouble is, unlike famous centres like Clairefontaine in France there are no young players being developed there
This is the issue around SGP's identity. "English football," Sheepshanks said, "needs an educational hub." He wants the park to play a major role in increasing the number of qualified coaches in England from 100,000 to 250,000 by 2018. Hand-in-hand with the new Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) being rolled out in club academies from next season, Sheepshanks expects "to see the first fruits" of SGP on the pitch only after 2020.
It is not developing the next generation of young footballers – it is the coaches that will be SGP's focus
Sheepshanks said that, at the very least, SGP should be a starting point for the development of future managers of the national team. "We want to produce home-grown managers from positive educational advantages". Sheepshanks visited Coverciano, the unofficial football managers' university in Italy, as part of his research and some of SGP, including the library, is inspired by that.
That is not to say the FA will be able to get SGP off the ground without some overseas expertise
The SGP board (a subsidiary of the FA) advertised for the park's managing director's role on Sunday. The successful candidate will earn a "six-figure sum" and will have to implement a management structure to establish the educational programmes, including those for coaches. "If we want to be the best in the world, we have to learn from the best in the world," Sheepshanks said. Which means that even future England managers learning at the patriotically named St George's Park may be taught by an, ahem, foreign coach.
When it is finished SGP should, at the very least, look breathtaking
The architect Alan Smith, of redboxdesign, has not had the benefit of the more generous budgets sanctioned by the FA when the project was first conceived more than 10 years ago in the organisation's financial salad days. But they have still made the most of the sense of space that the site affords.
The FA identified a naturally beautiful site, the former stately home of the Bass brewing family. Although it inevitably invites jokes about the governing body's ability, or otherwise, to organise piss-ups in breweries, the site lends itself to great views. The designers have even incorporated a copse of trees planted in the 1850s to commemorate the Duke of Wellington's death. If the England players can be bothered to look up from their Xboxes they will see the English countryside at its finest.
It means that the England squad will be based 130 miles from Wembley
The team will travel down two nights before games to stay at the Grove Hotel in Watford, their current base, and train at Wembley the day before home games. Luckily for them, the little-known Tatenhill airfield is next door to SGP, thus saving them the hassle of negotiating the M6 and M1.
Sheepshanks and the FA say that SGP must be among the best of its kind in the world
There is a five-year business plan to get the park up and running during which there is an expectation that it could make losses for two years, which would be subsidised by the FA. Beyond that it has to earn its keep.
Sheepshanks said that it has a unifying effect on the various stakeholders in English football: the FA, Premier League, Football League, PFA and LMA. "It will inspire and stimulate people in different ways," he said. "We want people to buy into the ethos that they can only get better. If you look at successful teams, that is what they do."
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