St George's Park can help England compete with Europe's footballing superpowers

The national football centre in Burton-on-Trent may be a decade late but can finally provide the level of coaching excellence that others on the continent have enjoyed for years
By Liam Twomey

In October the National Football Centre in Burton-on-Trent formally welcomed the senior England team – along with the country's possible future king – for the first time, amid genuine hope that its impact might help bring about a glorious sequel to the summer of 1966 before Prince William gets around to wearing the crown.

The 330-acre complex at St George's Park, finally built by the FA at the cost of just over £100 million after a decade of delays, boasts 12 full-size training pitches, including an exact replica of the Wembley surface reserved for Roy Hodgson's men to train on, and will house 24 England teams, covering men and women at all youth as well as senior levels.

Primarily, however, the centre will act as a national hub for the formulation and dissemination of coaching ideas and methods. Those methods, it is hoped, will eventually arm the next generation of England internationals with the technical skill and tactical awareness to compete with those European rivals who have left the current crop floundering in the dust at a succession of recent tournaments.

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The message that these coaches will return from Burton preaching is the FA's Future Game Philosophy – a blueprint for how the English style must develop over the next decade. Its increased focus on possession football from back to front and defending as a tactical unit is nothing new to those familiar with modern European football but utterly revolutionary at domestic grassroots level.

Eminent journalist Mihir Bose, who has covered English football for over 30 years, is confident that the new centre will prove well worth the FA's considerable investment, though he warns that there will be no short-term gain to such a project.

"It will give the England team a national centre of the kind that France, Italy, Germany and all the other major footballing nations have had for a long time," he told "But its impact with the national team will take a long time to work its way through.

"For a long time, the English game was based on the long ball. Kick the ball up, get the big men up there and play.  What has happened is that other nations have become physically as good as the English but they also have ball skills.

"What the national football centre may do over time – not tomorrow or the day after but several years down the line – is increase the skill level so that English players can match foreign players."

A glance at the complexes around Europe which the planners of Burton visited in search of inspiration suggests that such hopes of future success are more than blind optimism.

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Italy's Coverciano technical centre, founded in the 1950s to promote a more scientific, scholarly approach to coaching, is perhaps the closest equivalent to what Sir David Sheepshanks says will provide "the Oxford and Cambridge of coach education" in England and can claim a significant share of the credit for the Azzurri's World Cup triumphs of 1982 and 2006, as well as the fact that Italian managers arguably remain the most sought-after in the game.

The Clairefontaine academy on the outskirts of Paris gained legendary status as the base from which Aime Jacquet's France side won the 1998 World Cup on home turf. As a centre which trains a select group of young players in residence it bears more direct comparison with the FA's former centre of excellence in Lilleshall than Burton but there can be little doubt that some of the methods and facilities used there will have influenced those now in place at St George's Park.

Spain and Netherlands, both nations which contested the last World Cup final, can also point to the construction of a coaching hub as a seminal moment in their footballing revivals. Dutch managers are exported almost as regularly as their star players and, while La Furia Roja's most golden of generations owes much to the phenomenal conveyer belt of talent coming out of Barcelona's La Masia, the sheer depth of talent suggests that it is also the fruit of a wider revolution.

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Of course, the fact that these institutions are so long established highlights the depressing truth that, impressive as Burton is, England have arrived very late to this particular party. "It should have happened a long time ago," Bose continues. "The FA made a huge blunder by spending a lot of money to acquire a national stadium. It's all very well building a national theatre but you need the players to perform. Otherwise, who's going to watch you play?"

Belated it undoubtedly is but England finally appear to have at their disposal the means by which they can return from the international wilderness. Burton is far bigger than many of its European equivalents and boasts state-of-the-art facilities, the envy of the world.

If the FA can build on this promise and successfully reinvent the ugly, entrenched vision of the national game at grassroots level, cynicism can truly give way to hope that the image of an Englishman holding aloft the World Cup trophy may, one day, no longer remain the sole property of the era of Neil Armstrong and the Beatles.

Mihir Bose's new book 'The Game Changer - How the English Premier League came to dominate the world' is out now.

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