St George's Park
As St George's Park prepares to officially open Sky Sports was granted the chance to take a look around the £100million new home for England's national teams
By Words: Peter Fraser. Photographs: David Milner
Last Updated: 09/10/12 8:04am
"Practice makes permanent" are the words of the late great Sir Bobby Robson. They epitomise the positive attitude of the former England manager and also underline the theory behind the nation's new national football centre, St George's Park.
The sprawling countryside of the National Forest close to Burton upon Trent is perhaps not the most obvious place to find a 21st Century footballing hub. But there is no doubt about the impression created by a venue which brings under one roof all aspects of Football Association hierarchical management, coaches, players, training facilities and medical resources.
Having first been conceived by the FA in 2001, when former technical director Howard Wilkinson's fact-fining mission selected Burton's central geographical location, St George's Park will on 9th October be officially launched by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate Middleton, the former being the honourary president of the FA. After being temporarily mothballed in 2003, it has been a long time coming for English football but is worth the wait.
FA head of coaching and Under 17 England boss John Peacock, who is now based at St George's Park, told Sky Sports as part of an exclusive tour: "To finally see it come to fruition is really rewarding, personally. But I think, more importantly, from a national situation, this has got to be the right way forward. For the FA to have a technical base to now work from and encompass not just coaching but also refereeing, sports science and medical, all the aspects, they are right here."
Peacock is in his second stint with the FA having previously worked as regional director for the programme for excellence between 1990 and 1998. In those days, the school of excellence at Lilleshall was still in operation. But there is no doubt St George's Park is a cut above its spiritual predecessor and it is expected by the FA to create jealousy around the globe.
Sitting in 330 acres of parkland, the £100million project is unquestionably inspiring. Upon the approach, which is surrounded on all sides by numbers of perfectly-maintained football pitches, the buildings of St George's Park appear almost Scandinavian in design. Pillars, arches and materials are aesthetically appealing, environmentally friendly and sustainable.
But it is when stepping inside that the no-stone-left-unturned design of St George's Park begins to be felt. The site will be the home for the 24 national England teams at various age levels and will be used by the senior side as their pre-home match training base, starting with the forthcoming World Cup qualifier against San Marino.
It is impossible to escape the focus upon preparing to be the best. The quote from Robson is just one of many inspiring soundbites which adorn the internal walls of corridors and rooms of the complex. Quotes are not restricted to football and are sourced from throughout sport, with Olympic icons such as Michael Johnson, and American basketball star Kobe Bryant just a few of the samples.
The aim of St George's Park is not solely focused on players. As part of the FA's long-term strategy under the Future Game document, it will also act as a training and tuition base for FA Learning, the educational department of the FA, for up-and-coming coaches in English football. When Sky Sports visited, a UEFA B licence course was taking place in both custom-built classrooms and pitches.
The League Managers Association is also based at the venue and the Professional Footballers' Association has a satellite office to its London and Manchester centres. All offices, classrooms, lecture theatres, video editing suites, changing rooms - the list is endless - are named after former greats from English players, managers, coaches and staff. It is clear the message is to motivate and it does not disappoint.
The three-floor football centre consists of pristine top-floor FA offices, which include neighbouring rooms for England senior team manager Roy Hodgson and U21 boss Stuart Pearce, as well as a currently vacant room for director of elite development, which will be occupied by the incoming Dan Ashworth. Director of football development Sir Trevor Brooking can usually be found at St George's Park approximately three days a week.
State-of-the-art medical facilities occupy the middle floor under the name of Perform, which is part of Spire Healthcare. This is a rehabilitation and human performance facility with an endless array of resources and technology of huge scale. The level of medical expertise on offer means even 'minor surgery' is possible and the facility will be available to use by English football clubs as well as the international sides and other sports and businesses. Also incorporated are five vast indoor gyms, which include utilising NASA technology alongside equipment such as an altitude chamber.
The bottom floor has a full-sized indoor third generation football pitch equipped with a viewing gallery for up to 200 people, a multipurpose indoor sports hall, changing rooms with touchscreen televisions and ice baths, 11 full-size outdoor pitches and a £1m elite training pitch which is, according to the FA, an exact replica of Wembley in terms of every contour. The public are able to pay to use the football facilities as part of a range of experience packages.
Away from the football centre are a Hilton hotel and Hampton by Hilton hotel. These are open to the public and include a ballroom which is expected to be used for all of England's pre-match press conferences. The top floor of the hotel can also be made secure and private for when England teams are in residence. The hotel complex includes a bar - The Crossbar.
But while there has to be an inevitable commercial focus to attract revenue, the focus at St George's Park is obviously upon football. The underlying aim is to stimulate players. Teenagers will be viewed away from St George's Park from the age of 14 or 15 during regular, national set-up selection processes. If picked as approximately 40 successful players, they would progress to a national development camp and potentially from there on to St George's Park in England's U16 age group. The responsibility is then on the players.
Peacock explained: "You cannot ever lose sight that their aspirations should be, 'what can I do that will make me become the best?'. There is a lot of self-reflection that they need to do. The trappings of St George's Park are fantastic. Working out of these world-class facilities is one thing but sustaining that is going to take lots of hard, personal work. What we can do as coaches and developers is to try and make sure of the product we have got, in terms of delivery of content and the environment set-up. But there has got to be an aspiration."
It is perhaps ironic St George's Park is opening at a time when the captain of the England senior team, Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard, is a man who as a boy was famously rejected by Lilleshall. Peacock maintains player selection in the modern day remains a fluid scheme and accepts some 16-year-old stars could fade away while others may not blossom until a later age.
"I was around at that time," Peacock remembered regarding Gerrard's snub from Lilleshall. "Jamie Carragher was similar but he did get in. Steven Gerrard, at that time, did not. That is the way it goes. We have had players, Ashley Cole is a good example, who did not play that much at 16 and 17 but came into the system at about 18 or 19. That is the nature of development. If we all knew as 15-year-olds they would go all their way through, the crystal ball would be very easy. When you talk about development, the physical and mental characteristics required for the modern game, you do need to be conscious of the fact they will develop at different stages. Some will rise to the challenge, some will fall away. That is life. There is no nice streamline through. It is the curves and the troughs."That leads to the obvious question. When will the England senior team, which has for so many years underachieved through eras such as the Golden Generation of which Gerrard has been a part, begin to see the benefits of St George's Park? When will England be able to challenge the likes of World and double European champions Spain in terms of technically gifted home-grown talent?
"There is no quick-fix about it," explained Peacock. "What we have got is an outstanding facility that will be the envy of the world, I have no doubt about that. People will come and be taken aback by everything we have here. But the bottom line is we still have to keep working hard to make sure our courses are of the right standard and that the tuition is correct so that we develop."
Peacock continued: "It is very difficult to say, 'in five years' time, we will see a fantastic England team who are out there competing with the best in the world'. I think we are doing quite well. We are very good at putting ourselves down. At youth level, we are one of the top two or three countries in Europe. When it comes to the senior level, which everyone looks at as a focal point, we are top eight. We need to work hard to get into the top two to four in the world. That is an aspiration we all have."
St George's Park, The FA's new national football centre, is now open. For more information, visit TheFA.com/sgp