St George's centre of excellence fuels England's soccer hopes

The new St George's Park centre of excellence is designed to end a four-decade trophy drought in the country

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 2:18am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 4:01am

With the latest tranche of 2014 World Cup qualifying duels bringing the suspension of the drama of the Premier League this week and next, England’s Football Association (FA) seized the moment to open its long-awaited, state-of-the-art St George’s Park training complex.

FA chairman David Bernstein described the opening of the £105 million (HK$1.3 billion)“centre of excellence” as a momentous day in the history of the English game. Let’s hope so. England’s first-team players have been using it for the first time to prepare for their qualifiers against San Marino and Poland, and henceforth, all 24 England teams, from junior to senior level, will now train at the 330-acre complex.

No expense has been spared and nothing has been left to chance. There is an altitude chamber to mimic a variety of playing conditions, hydrotherapy pools and physio rooms. The stars, present and future, will reside on campus in the 220 Hilton-run hotel suites, each named after past England managers and players.

Sports medicine, sports science and psychology will be taught in the classrooms and clinics at the sporting citadel. The weight of expectation prevails everywhere the players tread. On the interior walls are quotes by sporting greats. “Losing is not coming second. It’s getting out of the water knowing you could have done better” says Olympic swimming wonder Ian Thorpe. “A lifetime of training for just 10 seconds,” says legendary Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens.

It has taken 37 years for the centre of excellence idea to leave the initial discussion stage and open for business. If Hong Kong FA chairman Mark Sutcliffe can deliver on his promise and fast-track the academy at Tseung Kwan O to an opening in 2014, then Hong Kong football will be laughing its way to success in far quicker time than England.

The chairman of St George’s Park, David Sheepshanks, said the new complex can help England close the gap on recent World Cup winners, such as France and Spain. But his optimism comes with a warning: we won’t see any results for at least another eight years.

“This [the centre] is a deliberately long-term view. Really it is the investment in coaches that is crucial, and from 2020 onwards we will have winning England teams,” Sheepshanks said.

England fans are long used to wallowing in 1966 nostalgia and if there are two things we have in plentiful supply, it is time and delusion masquerading as hope. Another decade spent waiting for glory? Sure. Bring it on.

What does matter to the FA is that at long last England now has a national academy to rival that of France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands; even Belgium, Romania and Slovakia have a centre of excellence.

England has been way behind the training curve for half a century. Subsequently, the senior men’s team have not won a major international tournament since the 1966 World Cup and have failed to reach a semi-final since the 1996 European Championship.

Of course, a gleaming training hub with pampering spas, manicured pitches and crisp bedlinen is only one part of the solution to reverse England’s appalling under-achievement. It alone cannot lead England out of the trophy room wasteland and express-track it all the way to football’s holy grail.

The EPL trailblazers and other lower league domestic clubs must help raise standards among the best 11-12-year-olds onwards. Yet only five top clubs have academy facilities that rival St George’s.

Crucially, will the domestic clubs try to curb their addiction to acquiring most of their talent from overseas once the home-grown products come of age post-2020?

Meantime, the FA assures everyone that it will not just be top players churned out of the centre in their thousands. Seven hundred and fifty “FA educators” will be trained at St George’s and then be tasked with training 250,000 new coaches by 2018.

As the players and coaches file into the centre’s new classroom this week, they will pass a quote by sports coach Clive Woodward, who led the England rugby squad to World Cup success. “How do you want to be remembered?” he asks. Good question. Discuss.