Howard Wilkinson, who describes the National Football Centre at Burton as "my baby", must be wondering about its gestation period after the Football Association confirmed on Thursday that the project had been put on hold again. Even an elephant only takes 22 months to give birth. A white elephant? Do not dare suggest such a thing to the formidable former Leeds United manager – the last Englishman to win the national championship – who as the technical director of the Football Association thought he had won the debate over a national training, coaching and education centre as long ago as 1999.
He remembers it well. "The [FA] Council with 101 votes for, one no and one abstention said yes to the Charter for Quality and contained therein was the proposal for an NFC. I said at the time it should be the Oxford and Cambridge of football. I then sourced Burton from one of about 10 sites I looked at." So how does it feel 10 years on that the great bureaucratic elephant has still not delivered? "My reaction now is one of utter, utter dismay," Wilkinson said at the Leaders in Football conference. "I think we're the only country in Europe that has not got an NFC. We do not even have any dedicated committee at the FA that deals with either youth development or coach education. You tell me what messages that sends out to aspiring young managers and coaches."
With England safely en route to another World Cup, and the country's leading clubs looking as powerful as ever in European competition, it is not an easy time to be prophesying doom. Sir Trevor Brooking, effectively the present technical director under another title, knows there are battles to be fought for the long-term development of players and coaches but has to talk up successes like those of Fabio Capello and the under-age teams who reached European finals last summer. Wilkinson, now the chairman of the League Managers' Association, looks back in something close to anger and forward with concern.
"If you qualify for a World Cup, everything in the garden's rosy," he said. "Well, it might be rosy this year but it's the job of government to look beyond this year and look after the long-term welfare. Decisions coming out of the FA now are nearly always diluted. Where there's a will there's a way and in any organisation if you have constant political bickering then it's easy to stall anything for whatever reason." The stalling took hold early this decade. The centre was supposed to open in 2004 but in 2005 work stopped altogether as the FA ran into a financial crisis. In December 2007 the FA Board unanimously approved the concept again but even then did not commit to Burton for another six months. A document published by Brooking's department a year ago said the centre should be "fully operational by 2011" but that now looks even more optimistic.
Anyone with experience of similar institutions in countries like France or Italy tends to wonder what those stubborn old English eccentrics are doing. Gérard Houllier, once Liverpool manager and a confirmed Anglophile, says of the French academy at Clairefontaine and its effect on that country's football: "It was pivotal, a major asset, a house of football. You had all the national teams gathering there, all the coach education courses. So that means the technical director and his national coaches could implement a philosophy and a unified voice. We started there in 1988 and from there look at the results of the youth and the national team."
Meanwhile, Burton has cost an estimated £25m already. It takes a high six-figure sum each year to maintain the 350-acre site with its 12 high-tech, under-used pitches and eco-friendly watering system using recycled rainwater. It is not Staffordshire rain that Wilkinson has in mind when he says: "You do feel you're pissing in the wind."
Wilkinson adds: "I don't know anybody who knows anything about football who's said 'National Football Centre, waste of time; coach education, waste of time'. But you get to the point where until you see something built and see some dignitary cutting the ribbon you don't believe it do you?"
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- Conference National (football Conference)
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