Stay on the ball
The FA's new national football centre at St George's Park in Staffordshire isn't just for the pros, as Will Dean and his DisOrient FC squad discovered
St George's Park, the Football Association's box-fresh-new national football centre, is designed to be a comfortable home for some of the planet's finest and most finely remunerated athletes. The £100m venue, which opened in October, features a football pitch kept to the exact same conditions as Wembley. It possesses a hydrotherapy centre which includes an underwater treadmill and a gym with an altitude room. It has hotel rooms fit for millionaires and 330 acres of rolling Staffordshire countryside kitted out to dream specifications of sports scientists and football managers.
Not surprisingly, then, there were a few funny looks when DisOrient FC turned up on a Friday afternoon to put the facilities at St George's to the test.
That's not to say that DisOrient's players don't have much in common with the likes of Joe Hart, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard. All of our 10-man squad are in our twenties or thirties and enjoy playing football. But that's where the similarities end.
DisOrient are an ailing one-year-old five-a-side team in desperate need of some help to propel us upwards in our Tuesday evening league. Our record before this trip had seen us win two games and lose eight. We need all the underwater treadmills we can get.
St George's is split into two main parts. There's the FA's National Football Centre, a "university of football" which aims to replicate the success of similar bases abroad such as France's famed Clairefontaine. The other half is a hotel/conference complex which is home to a 142-bed Hilton and a smaller, cheaper Hampton by Hilton. As well as providing rooms for England's 24 teams, this place is open to the public.
It also features a group of meeting rooms which are booked up by the likes of Uefa and the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), as well as the place where DisOrient really come into our own, the hotel restaurant and bar (called The Crossbar). The bar, like almost every surface here, is decked with images of England players.
Several clubs have also taken to staying here before games against local clubs such as Derby County and Stoke City. On the night we stay, Millwall and Blackpool are here too.
Like the hotels, most of the facilities at the football centre are open to people who can hardly kick a ball, let alone do it for a living. Which is just as well for DisOrient.
We're here to take part in a St George's Experience, a package which allows 12 players to take a tour of the facilities and then play for two hours with an FA-qualified coach. Our tour is led by FA consultant Dave Bryon. Bryon takes us around the most interesting parts of St George's, including the Wembley-style pitch and a coaching library. We also have a stroll into the gym.
The bit we're most giddy about is getting to play football. Obviously. Our coach for the day is Lee Brown, community development manager for the FA. Lee seems impressed when DisOrient leg it on to the Wembley-sized indoor AstroTurf "Sir Alf Ramsey pitch" resplendent in our red-and-tangerine kits. "We had a group a few weeks ago who turned up in jeans," says Lee, pleased by our organisation, if not our ball control.
After working on passing "through the thirds" (i.e. not hoofing it wildly towards the goal), we play a final game of six-a-side before Lee leads us over towards four tall metal figures. It's a wall set up exactly where Greece put their defenders in advance of David Beckham's famous late free kick in 2001 which put England through to the 2002 World Cup Finals. Our task, Lee explains, is to recreate Beckham's kick. After 20 minutes of clanging the ball into the (football) wall and the metal wall behind the nets, we go and cool down.
We do this after getting changed in the Viv Anderson Dressing Room. Most things here are named for England greats. There are the Paul Ince and Michael Owen pitches, and there's even a Clough Room, which, you'd suspect, doesn't quite make up for the FA's famous snubbing of Old Big 'Ead for the England job back in the Seventies.
We head over to the Perform hydrotherapy centre, the setting for the now-famous picture of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge being shown around as Andy Carroll and Jermain Defoe "relax" in the hot tub. Relax might not be the right word; this is actually a hot-tub/ice-bath combination. To aid muscle recovery after games, players are encouraged to spend a minute in the warm jets and then a minute in the cold water. Forget the running; this is the most painful moment of the whole day.
We also try out a four-man underwater treadmill, which allows you to run without putting much weight on your joints. This is a vital part of the rehab process for injured athletes or members of the public, but for us it's just mainly for the fun of watching our legs wheel underwater on two flatscreen monitors.
After these exertions, we're all far too tired to do anything except to lounge and be massaged in the hotel's spa complex and retire to dinner. And while players from Millwall and Blackpool amiably catch up over soft drinks in The Crossbar, DisOrient represent the spirit of pre-sports-science football by proceeding to get drunk. Mike Bassett would be proud.
There may be separate check-in for the elite players (since jettisoned by England coach Roy Hodgson) and a roped-off executive floor, but the centre still feels open. Coaches in FA tracksuits trot around chatting to each other, as do staff and players from the two Championship sides.
We learned a lot from our day at St George's. First, that our secondary-school AstroTurf pitch isn't much cop compared with an air-conditioned, multimillion-pound indoor arena. And second, a couple of hours' coaching actually did us the world of good. Or at least the bonding in the bar did. After our dismal start to the season, DisOrient won our next two games, finishing in a respectable eighth place. A couple more weekends with Lee and the metal wall and we'll be pushing for promotion.
DisOrient stayed as guests of Hilton at St George's Park (01283 240444; hilton.co.uk), which offers doubles from £110, including breakfast. St George's Park (01283 576200; thefa.com/st-georges-park) offers coaching clinics from £30pp; the St George's Experience costs £60pp.
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