English football in safe hands

England have a tricky World Cup draw but despite low expectations St. George’s Park promises a bright future.

A school group meets the England women's under-17 team [Al Jazeera]

Anyone still questioning the site of England’s National football centre will be tested on arrival. 

Located 132 miles away from the hallowed Wembley turf, Burton-on-Trent’s beautiful countryside instantly calms the nerves and clears the mind. This is a place where taxi drivers strike up conversation, to the shock of muted Londoners.  

For a national team under exceedingly high levels of expectation, it is easy to see why the FA opted for this 330-acre Midlands site to develop the nation’s favourite sport. 

Bought in 2001, it took over a decade of financial negotiations – and three World Cup failures – before the vision of St. George’s Park came to fruition. The $170 million complex which now homes 24 England squads, 12 pitches – including an exact replica of Wembley down to the cut of the grass – was opened in October 2012 by Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge. (Only a few weeks before another important George was on his way). 

While plenty of attention follows the men’s national side through the gates of St. George’s Park, there is far more to the national centre than Roy Hodgson’s men.

In addition to housing all England’s squads, St. George’s Park has been used by over 200 community and grassroot clubs in its first year. Premier League and European sides frequently visit the Park and away from football, the England Rugby Union team, GB Hockey, British Basketball and Olympic athletes use the state of the art facilities and stay in the centre’s Hilton hotel. 

“Yes the idea of the site is to support the senior teams but we also cater for the game on various levels, at the grass roots and community level. In an agreement with Staffordshire council local teams play league matches at St. George’s Park; adult men, senior women, under 15-teams, various local teams will play their fixtures here,” Community Manager Lee Brown tells Al Jazeera. 

Whether you are a player or coach, no level of football is ignored. 

“The question is how do we support the game in this country? How do we get better players and coaches? How do we get England winning? We are striving to do that all the time by utilising the site and what it can offer in terms of development,” says Brown.

“And with the community aspect – how can we maximise what we have to support and benefit the local community. We offer football experiences so grassroots teams from all over the country can come and use the indoor 3G surface and train on areas where the professional players would come.” 

England defender Alex Scott tries her hand at table tennis
 [Al Jazeera]

Facts and stats back the centre’s early success, but it is perhaps only on visiting St. George’s Park that you start to appreciate how important it could be to the future of English sport. After dragging myself away from my friendly taxi driver, I entered the multi-functional indoor sports hall to watch members of the England women’s U17 team play with children from a local primary school. 

My visit coincided with the women’s Under 17 European Championship which saw all eight finalists stay at St. George’s Park. 

As the spirited Italians played table tennis, the Scottish chased England player Alex Scott for an autograph and the Spanish finished up their lunch in the banqueting hall, it was a rare moment to see rival teams socialising side by side. 

Such a positive and inclusive atmosphere should not be taken for granted by today’s rising stars – these are facilities previous generations could only dream about.       

“It really makes a good home base for us. The pitches, the hydrotherapy pool, they are such good quality and we get to use the same facilities as the senior team,” England under-17 player Mollie Rouse tells me.  

With over 100 caps for the senior women’s England team, Alex Scott knows what it is like to train in lesser environments. 

“We have everything on one site here – we don’t need to travel. You can go straight from the pitch to do your recovery in the contrast pool – and then back to the hotel. It is so professional and makes you feel like a professional,” the Arsenal player tells Al Jazeera. 

However, while the players dominate the media spotlight, St. George’s Park is also a centre of coaching and medical excellence.

In November 2013, its sports medical centre – run by partners Perform, part of Spire Healthcare – became the first in England to be awarded the coveted FIFA F-Marc accreditation. St. George’s Park is now one of 36 elite facilities across the world to be recognised as a FIFA Medical Centre of Excellence. 

The centre caters for community and grassroots clubs
 [Al Jazeera]

“The F Mark is so crucial. it means all the research from the medical team is pulled together and will then flow through the FA learning, so to the 22,000 licensed coaches. The more we can get information out to them the better,” Phil Horton, Director of Perform, tells me.  

“It’s about the people. These are wonderful facilities, state of the art, unbelievable technologies, but it’s about the people who operate it.”

Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville, and current United player Ryan Giggs, are both studying their FIFA Pro Licence at the facility but St. George’s Park is open to coaches of all levels. 

As well as its ability to house teams and coaches, St. George’s Park impressively manages to combine superb facilities with a clinical, yet not sterile, environment. There is little flashy about the centre, it is an entirely professional space – with only inspiring quotes from sporting legends breaking up the walls of white.  

The emphasis is on developing English talent in the best facilities possible. With Premier League academies working hard to spot talent – St. George’s Park’s immediate goal is to make sure there are English coaches to develop it.

Rio 2014 is too soon to judge whether the national football centre has changed England’s fortunes on the field. But early signs suggest English football is heading in the right direction.

And even if it is more World Cup gloom for England, the centre will continue to provide opportunities for teams and coaches in the community. That may not be headline grabbing news – but it’s arguably more important. 

Source: Al Jazeera