By George, I think we've got it!
The Football Association's national football centre, at St George's Park near Burton, is a state-of-the-art development which it is hoped will transform the English game when it opens in September. Richard Rae enjoys a sneak preview
The best part of 40 years after it was first mooted, the country in which the game was born finally has a national football centre.
Where Spain has long had the Ciudad del Futbol near Madrid, France Clairefontaine on the outskirts of Paris and Italy Coverciano in Florence, England now has St George's Park, near Burton. And let no cynical eyebrow be raised – not yet, anyway – because St George's can stand the comparison. The question of course is whether, like its European counterparts, it will produce players of the requisite technique, intelligence and vision to win European Championships and World Cups. Or even win the occasional penalty shoot-out.
It is a question which David Sheepshanks, the man chosen by the Football Association to make the project happen, is accustomed to hearing. The simple answer is that it is going to take at least 10 years before the impact can begin to be judged.
Of more immediate interest is how the FA intend St George's to raise the standard of English international football. Given that the buildings have been completed on time and just under the £80 million budget, Sheepshanks is entitled to a moment in the sun. But, as he explains, the real work has yet to begin.
In material terms, it is hard to argue the FA haven't got a bang for their bucks. There is a superb full-size indoor pitch, a huge sports hall, sports medicine, rehabilitation and science centres, educational areas, 11 outdoor pitches – including an exact replica of Wembley – and two large hotels that are open to the public.
Everything is state of the art, from the anti-gravity running machines to the altitude chamber, the hydrotherapy pools with underwater treadmills, the athletics track with built-in pressure pads, the six-lane, 30-degree running hill and the ECG machines.
Like the country's other 23 representative teams, the senior side will train here. Perhaps, as Sheepshanks puts it, there will be a short-term bounce, a beneficial effect on their fortunes. Any of the current crop of multimillionaire players who consider such support to be only what is due to individuals of their importance should, however, think again.
St George's Park is not for them. Who the place is really about, says Sheepshanks, is the generations of England footballers to come, and those who will coach them.
"Whatever the sport, the coach has a defining influence," said the former Ipswich Town chairman this week. "Take the Olympics: there won't be a champion who doesn't have a world-class coach behind them. We have some great coaches in this country, but we need lots more."
The FA's point is that seven million people regularly play football in England and there are 103,000 qualified coaches, a ratio of about 1:69. The intention is not simply to produce more coaches – 250,000 by 2018 is the number mentioned by Sheepshanks, reducing the ratio to 1:25 – but for those coaches to be better: better educated, better trained, better motivated – and more likely to produce players who are not only technically more adept, but who as the FA's director of football development, Trevor Brooking, puts it, are more able to take decisions on and off the field.
The key appointment then will be that of technical director, the individual who will impart the vision, who will oversee the breadth and direction of coach education. It is due to be made "very soon", said Sheepshanks. And yes, it may be an overseas candidate.
"The technical director will run the football side, absolutely. He or she will appoint the staff, the coach educators, and we will certainly cast the net wide because we have the opportunity to bring the best in the world here to assist our cause. We have some outstanding coach educators in this country; however, if we want to be best in class, we should not necessarily think all our coach educators have to be home-grown.
"At the same time you shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water – we have great strengths in English football as well and we should look to combine both."
Little Englanders disturbed by the number of foreign managers in the country may not react well if, as seems likely, an overseas supremo is appointed – oh that Pep Guardiola might be persuaded to spend a few years in the rolling Staffordshire countryside – but there is consolation.
"Increasing the standard and number of qualified English coaches should lead to more home-grown managers managing our Premier League teams and available to coach our international teams," said Sheepshanks.
"If we get this right, by definition we should never need to appoint overseas coaches – so that would be a success measure."
He points out that other countries – and successful football and sports coaching centres worldwide have been visited – have been helpful in providing access and information.
"I think English football has the respect of other countries and they're excited we're building St George's Park, but we clearly have lots to learn.
"A very good definition of winning is achieving a personal best, and our aim is that people leave here with a relentless commitment to being better every day – and that will be a massive culture change for English football."
The England manager, Roy Hodgson, who will play a consultative role in the appointment of the technical director, visited before Euro 2012 and was "very excited", said Sheepshanks.
"We all saw how the Euros played out and the superior technique of Spanish, which was a joy to behold in many ways.
"So we've reached a milestone here but it's unfinished business. We're not saying, 'Look at us' – we have a long way to go and an awful lot more hard work to achieve the success we crave. It's a statement of intent by English football, but made in all humility."
It is, in short, a start. An expensive one, to be sure – but a start.
The numbers game
12 full-size pitches, including one indoors.
5 pitches with under-soil heating and floodlighting.
60m x 40m multi-purpose indoor sports hall.
5 gymnasiums (Hilton, Hampton, Biomechanical, Rehabilitation, Strength & Conditioning).
330 acres of land.
24 England teams to have their home at St George's Park.
£3m technology budget.
132 miles to Wembley Stadium.
1975 when the idea of a national football centre was first discussed.
800 new coaches to be trained and qualified every year at SGP.
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