St. George's Park: Future of English football in full bloom

By Phil McNultyChief football writer, BBC Sport
A look inside St. George's Park

The words of Sir Bobby Robson deliver one of a series of inspirational messages at the Football Association's new £100m monument to the future of the game in England.

England's players will see the words "Practice Makes Permanent" adorning the wall as they walk through the corridors to their vast dressing room at St. George's Park, the FA's National Football Centre tucked away in the countryside at Burton-upon-Trent.

As England's senior squad finally take up residence this week after the realisation of a long-held - and much-delayed - dream at the FA, they will find the perfect environment in which to practise what the great manager Robson was preaching.

The future of English football is in full bloom at Burton. Not simply bricks and mortar but flesh and blood as manager Roy Hodgson prepares his players for the World Cup qualifiers against San Marino and Poland.

Coach John Peacock's England Under-17 squad, "the Burton Guinea Pigs" as he affectionately calls them, got first use of the breathtaking new facility in August at a four-team tournament involving Italy, Portugal and Turkey - with all the sides based at Burton.

The arrival of Hodgson's England squad merely underpins Burton's status as one of the cornerstones of the FA's plans to develop the game.

There are plenty of nods to English football's past, images of the greats around every corner and a picture of victorious captain Billy Wright being hoisted shoulder high by his team-mates at Wembley in that main dressing room. However everything at Burton is aimed at the future and rivalling the national centres that have been at the heart of the well-being of the game in superpowers such as France, Spain and the Netherlands.

Suites and rooms are dedicated to England's greats from Paul Gascoigne to Sir Bobby Charlton. There are 12 full-size training pitches and a grass replica of the Wembley surface.

An indoor pitch also has a 60m sprint track running alongside should anyone wish to draw inspiration from another message decorating the walls of Burton, this time from the great American Olympian Jesse Owens, who said: "A lifetime of training for just 10 seconds."

Quite simply, St. George's Park contains everything anyone connected with the English game would want in state-of-the-art form. The League Managers' Association and the Professional Footballers' Association are also on site.

Peacock said: "This is an immensely important facility. It is great credit to the Football Association that we have finally got it over the line. I came back to the FA in 2002 thinking the National Football Centre was going to open a year later and it didn't happen, so I'm glad I'm still around to see it.

"From a development point of view it's fantastic and the facilities are second to none. In terms of the quality of the pitches and the environment it is conducive to learning and education. From a coach education perspective it is the same. We can now run our national courses here, for A and B coaching licences and the age group courses.

"We have now got everything under one roof. It is a really big benefit."

David Sheepshanks, chairman of St. George's Park, says the FA's new centre of excellence is an "investment in coaches" that will ensure England are winning competitions from 2020 onwards.

Royal opening for St George's Park in 2012

"The teachers of the game have the defining influence," Sheepshanks told BBC Radio 5 live's Breakfast. "We are investing in the teachers so that we can get ahead of what they are doing in France and Spain.

"Really it is the investment in coaches that is crucial and from 2020 onwards we will have winning England teams."

Peacock, speaking about the reaction of England's youngsters, added: "I think when they come down the driveway they will look and think 'wow what a fantastic complex' because there is no doubt facilities back at clubs are fantastic in their own right.

"I think it was imperative that we could replicate something along those lines ourselves as the national body - and in fact be better.

"I think the players need to see a difference from what they get at the club environment to what they get at international level, so this all-encompassing environment of learning, education and an environment where all that can be facilitated is so important."

Sir Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of football development, reiterated that the focus at St George's Park should be on improving English players in their early years.

He told BBC Radio 5 live: "There are three key age groups - 5-11, 12-16 and 17-21. We have to focus on those first two age groups and produce quality England players who are good enough to break into a Premier League club's first team at the age of 18 or 19."

The cutting edge of sport is everywhere, including sports science laboratories, altitude chambers and multiple gymnasiums. On a guided tour it looked every inch as the FA would have imagined it when the idea was conceived in 2001.

Peacock added: "When you look at the Dutch, French and Spanish they all have their own national centres. It was only right that a country the size of ourselves finally has our own technical base to work from. I see it as a training ground environment.

"Wembley is fantastic but it wasn't a technical football base where we could get on a training pitch and educate our players. Here we can.

"I personally think English football couldn't have done without this centre. When you think of what the clubs have done individually in raising their standards, with facilities, coaching and general youth development structure, it has been fantastic. As an association we have needed to do something on top of that.

"It is for the game in England generally, it is for the whole country to get the benefit from."

The FA hopes it is one that will continue for generations.


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