An 80m national centre for English football without any footballers. Only this country and the various conflicting interests, factions, committee-men and garden-shed dictators that run our national game could have come up with that one.
One thing should be clear: the National Football Centre at Burton-upon-Trent if it is built there will not be a breeding ground for young English talent. It will not be a Clairefontaine for the English, raising a generation of elite players on Staffordshire soil. In fact, when you go back six years to Howard Wilkinson's original plans, even then the Football Association's former technical director never promised Burton would be a developer of young players.
By the time the likes of Sir Trevor Brooking and Stuart Pearce put the argument for the Burton project yesterday they knew that option would be laughed out of court trying to take the control of young players from Premier League clubs is like attempting to separate a peckish Alsatian dog from its pork chop. Instead, the FA board compromised on a much vaguer concept for Burton. A centre for technical excellence. A home for our national team to train. A place for seminars, coaching clinics, a hotel. That sort of thing.
In short, they gave Burton everything apart from what Steve McClaren would doubtless describe as "the real bull": training young English footballers and turning them into the next England World Cup-winning team. That is the central truth to English football in the modern era. The all-powerful Premier League clubs will let the FA do just about everything: they can develop state-of-the-art pitches, instant video replay, sports medicine facilities and fitness programmes. But will they let them coach the best young kids full-time? Not a chance.
For that reason alone it has always been hard to see the point of Burton. If you want a true revolution in the culture of English footballers then surely you have to change the age-old way in which the clubs have developed them which has scarcely altered since the advent of professionalism. After all, the academy system developed by the Premier League over the past decade does not appear to have left us exactly overrun with brilliant young English talent.
When Wilkinson revealed the first plans for Burton, the template seemed to be closer to Clairefontaine, the French academy that has nurtured so many of the current generation of great French footballers. Now the revised model is similar to Coverciano, the Italian football federation headquarters that serves as a de facto football university for managers, coaches and technological development.
It is a decent enough principle and when people of the quality and integrity of Brooking back it the project deserves our attention. But let us not pretend that this is a major shift in our football culture; rather it is born of the committee decision-making that is a way of life in the FA and a process that rarely yields radical results. The Burton decision is a sop to all parties and a get-out-of-jail card for the FA whose elite training centre-in-waiting is currently being used by those titans of English football, Gresley Rovers.
The principle of England teams staying at Burton while they prepare for England matches is another idea that is replete with comic-tragic possibilities. Only the English would contrive to make their national team late for a home game, caught in traffic on the M40 while their Wembley opponents swan into the stadium from a posh west London hotel. Never mind turning Wembley into a fortress, when the team is travelling from Burton it is hardly going to feel like a home game.
With luck, over time, Burton may play its role in inspiring an English coach good enough to manage the England team. There is no doubt that the original founding principles, and those of Brooking, are worthy enough but there is precious little about it that feels ground-breaking. When Coverciano was conceived after the Second World War, and Clairefontaine opened in 1988, they must have felt like radical new frontiers in the development of football in their respective countries. The same could hardly be said of Burton, now on track six years after it was first mooted. For 80m you would at least hope to feel a bit more excited.
National football centres: How the continent's finest create new talent
The Clairefontaine academy 30 miles outside Paris is held up as the shining example by supporters of Burton. Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Louis Saha and William Gallas are among the alumni but in reality Clairefontaine does not have a national intake. It takes boys from Paris and the areas west and north-west of the city. Each year 24 boys, aged 13, are selected for the three-year residential course which they combine with playing for their clubs at the weekend. On average, Clairefontaine claim that six to seven from every intake go on to sign professional contracts.
The success of French football is really built on a brilliant regional structure. There are designated high schools for children who are gifted at sport Eric Cantona attended one. There are also eight regional centres known as Centres regional d'Education Populaire et de Sport (CREPS) all over France. All eight CREPS are multi-sport but run the same football programme as Clairefontaine. The football flagship was once based at Vichy but was switched to Clairefontaine, just outside Paris, which is known as the Institut National du Football. It also caters for women's football and is the base for the France senior team when they play home matches.
No national centre and no national stadium. The federal-minded Germans leave player development all in the hands of the clubs who judging by national team performances do a very good job of it.
All national teams from junior to senior levels train at a complex outside Madrid known as La Ciudad del futbol de Las Rozas. However, the place does not have a residential training scheme and was quiet enough to be used recently as a temporary base for Real Madrid while their new training ground was being built. Promising young Spanish players are developed by their clubs and then recommended by their regions to play in the junior national team.
The Italian football federation leaves development of young players in the hands of the clubs who get them as early as seven years old. The clubs oversee their players' education as well. For example, as a trainee at SPAL in Ferrara, a young Fabio Capello studied for a chartered surveyors' diploma.
The jewel in the crown is Coverciano the Italian football federation HQ on the outskirts of Florence. The Italy senior team always prepares there although again there is no residential scheme for young players. Instead Coverciano is the Oxbridge for coaches, physios, sports doctors and even directors of football. It is there that Capello and generations of post-war Italian coaches have gone to learn the secrets of Italian football management with great success.
AND DIDN'T WE ONCE HAVE ONE TOO?
The FA's National Centre of Excellence at Lilleshall ran for 15 years until 1999 when it was closed on the advice of the then FA technical director Howard Wilkinson who advocated the current Premier League academy system.
Feelings were mixed about Lilleshall. The clubs opposed it because they wanted the players themselves much the same as today. Sol Campbell, Michael Owen, Joe Cole, Wes Brown, Jermain Defoe and Scott Parker all attended while Alan Smith left because he was homesick. Steven Gerrard was judged not good enough for a place. Peter Crouch described the trial system there as a "shambles".Reuse content