St George's Park: An Oxbridge of football – without any students
Over £100m has been lavished on the building of St George's Park, but the FA's elite academy is about developing coaches, not players
Whether it is big international matches or cup finals at Wembley stadium, the presentation of the 2018 World Cup bid or yesterday's opening of St George's Park, no one could doubt the Football Association's ability to pull a crowd. Royals, politicians, the heroes of 1966, Ashley Cole – these are the A-listers that any institution would like to attract to its marquee events.
Yesterday, at SGP, the famous names and the wider FA family were not disappointed. Driven through the mist-shrouded 330 acres of the former Byrkley hunting lodge that now belongs to the FA, and on to the buildings and pitches that the governing body and partners have invested £105m in.
There is no denying that SGP is impressive and has clearly been designed with the philosophy that it should, at the very least, attempt to be the best of its kind. There is a hydrotherapy pool with a floor that goes up and down. There are five gyms. There is an artificial pitch of such a high standard that, we were told, Uefa would permit a Champions League game to be played on it – although, just to be clear, that is not in the offing.
Many of English football's biggest names – Steven Gerrard, Gary Neville, Sir Geoff Hurst – said it was the best they had ever seen. They may well be right. On a crisp autumn day in east Staffordshire with the FA president, the Duke of Cambridge, lavishing praise on the organisation and the park's driving force, David Sheepshanks, it felt like a great day for the FA.
Given the wrangling over this site that dates back to its acquisition by former FA chief executive Adam Crozier in 2001, you have to hand it to the FA. But the question remains, and it will do so for years to come, what exactly is SGP? What is it for? And how will we know that it has been a success?
It is easier to say what it is not. It is not an English Clairefontaine or even a modern-day Lilleshall, the old national football centre. All those institutions are, or were, specific developers of young talent with players in residence. The key role in changing the culture of a country's football is the development of young players. In English football that is territory the clubs guard ferociously.
It is the Premier League clubs, and some in the Championship, who forced through the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan last year, the most radical change to the academy system since its inception. They did so with the FA's blessing, in part in exchange for the clubs' support on SGP. The clubs are in control of the development process that is at the heart of English football's future.
"When you are a kid you have the dream growing up," Gerrard said. "This place is an unbelievable place to learn and to grow and improve and, hopefully, you can achieve your dream there."
It was a nice line from a great footballer but SGP will not be developing young players. They will visit if they make it into one of the England junior teams, or if they become a full international. They may come here for tournaments or injury rehabilitation but SGP is no Clairefontaine, which runs a two-year residential course – ironically, modelled on Lilleshall (which famously rejected the schoolboy Gerrard).
Instead, SGP will primarily be, as well as a training base for the 24 England representative teams that fall under the FA's auspices, an "Oxford and Cambridge of coach education", in the words of Sheepshanks. They will develop the teachers who, the FA hopes, will go out into the country better qualified to produce more sophisticated footballers.
Sheepshanks hopes that 250,000 coaches will pass through SGP before 2020, addressing the poor ratio of coaches to players in the country that compares badly with other leading European nations. Of that number, he would like 120 to qualify as Uefa pro-licence coaches and a further 500-1,000 with the A-licence. It is the development of football coaches by which SGP's legacy will be decided.
It is just a pity that when one sees the magnificent facility Sheepshanks and his team have come up with that, as the Oxbridge of English football, it is not admitting its first students – young footballers who live and train on site with a view to being developed into the best. An insight into the Premier League's attitude towards SGP could be ascertained by the absence yesterday of Richard Scudamore, the league's chief executive.
Sheepshanks said yesterday that he sold the project to the Premier League by promising it that the FA was "not trying to create a new Lilleshall" or infringe on the clubs' pre-eminence on development. Currently, the FA has nine "coach educators" which it hopes to raise to 16, who visit club academies and represent the FA's key connection to the fundamental process of developing young players.
What Sheepshanks is asking for with SGP is patience. It is, in his words, a "long-term play" in a short-term world and for that he deserves great credit. At this stage it is impossible to know exactly what effect it will have and how it will develop its identity and role in English football. It does not have an immediate control over the development of young players and yet there is a good chance that subsequent failures by the England team will be laid at its door.
Yesterday, it was all about the wow-factor of the FA's new facility. The road ahead will be tough. At the back of the hall as Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton officially opened the facility was Howard Wilkinson, the man who drew up the plans for the original national football centre 11 years ago. Since then it had been dropped, mothballed, redesigned and reworked to become the unusual combination of public money and commercial deals.
Would it have been built if the FA had not already invested in the 330 acres of Staffordshire countryside before the Crozier regime went belly up? That was not a question the FA wanted to consider on such a big day, but it will know that the challenges for SGPhave only just started.
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