The Three Lions’ new den
© FIFA.com

For the best part of three generations, ever since England won the 1966 FIFA World Cup™, the same old question has beset English football: how can the country that invented the game have fallen far so behind its rivals from a technical standpoint?

Ousted from FIFA World Cups and UEFA European Championships in recent years by Portugal, Germany and Italy, the Three Lions have had to watch from the sidelines as these teams and other European rivals such as France and Spain have contested the latter stages of tournaments, with team captain Steven Gerrard among those citing an inability to control the ball as well as their opponents as a reason for England’s early exits.

One explanation for such technical shortcomings is that there has never been a proper finishing school for coaches to deliver the best possible education for players coming through the system. While France has Clairefontaine, Italy Coverciano and Spain the Ciudad del Fútbol, England, by contrast, has had no elite national training hub. Until now.

Our 24 teams have always been on the road and have never had the benefit of having their own academy.
David Sheepshanks

The St. George’s Park National Football Centre, a multifaceted 330-acre complex surrounded by lakes, trees and walks in England’s West Midlands, has finally opened its doors with the aim of creating a conveyor belt of highly qualified coaches who, in turn, will produce better and more skilful England footballers from grassroots level up to the senior team.

The idea of a national centre was first mooted in 1975 but was plagued by planning delays and budgetary constraints, with funds being directed towards other projects such as the construction of the new Wembley. However, when England’s football administrators realised that the concept of a national football centre was in danger of being remembered as the project that never was, something was finally done about it and St. George’s Park received the green light in 2008.

“Our 24 teams have always been on the road and have never had the benefit of having their own academy,” says David Sheepshanks, the St. George’s Park chairman. “It would be unthinkable for, say, Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea to achieve what they have without their own home training ground to generate their own excellence.”

State-of-the-art
One look around St. George’s Park and you quickly realise how much effort and determination has gone into delivering the coaches and players of the future. Built over just 17 months at a cost of £100million, the training centre oozes modern footballing sophistication.

It is fitted out with 12 full-size pitches, five with under-soil heating and floodlighting, an altitude chamber, a hydrotherapy unit, a whole floor dedicated to sports medicine and sports science, an Olympic-size swimming pool, five gymnasiums, a full-size futsal arena, a 60-metre running hill, and even its own library, where aspiring coaches can pore through the written theses of some of their illustrious predecessors.

Sheepshanks, who used to run the English Football League, wants the groundbreaking centre, where roughly 70 Football Association staff will be based, to become “a dynamic Mecca for the English game”. 

A former chairman of Ipswich Town, he has travelled the world picking up tips on how to produce the best educational and training facilities, including visiting the aforementioned venues in France, Italy and Spain as well as the Aspire complex in the Qatari capital Doha and the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. The research has certainly paid off: even the refectory is designed to be a place to swap ideas and stories.

The centre’s work will be coordinated by whoever is appointed the FA’s technical director. At the time of going to press, the identity of the director had not been revealed, but Sheepshanks made it clear how important the role would be in terms of putting in place the coaches’ training programme and appointing coach-education staff.

“It’s almost as important, when you consider the future development of the game, as the England manager,” he said. “The teacher has a defining influence. In football we too often send the least qualified coaches to coach the kids. That has to change and the only way it can is to create a career path.”

Will all the teachers have to be British? Absolutely not. “We will certainly cast the net wide because we have the opportunity to bring the best in the world here to assist our cause,” says Sheepshanks.

“We have some outstanding coach-educators in this country, however, if we want to be best-in-class, we should not necessarily think all our coach-educators have to be home-grown. Then again, you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – we have great strengths in English football as well and we should look to combine both.”

Scarcity of coaches
Sheepshanks is convinced that English football, at senior level at least, is far weaker than it should be. The Premier League may be massively popular globally but its success is often attributed more to the influence of its glittering array of international “imports” than to the skills of the players born and bred in Britain.

“We have all seen how the EURO played out and how the superior techniques of the Spanish helped them retain the title,” said Sheepshanks. “We are now starting the hard work to achieve the success we crave. We have to increase the number of technically adept players.”

Nevertheless, FA officials are keen to point out that the centre will not have overnight results and that it could take another decade before England can produce title-contending teams at various levels. “France opened Clairefontaine in 1988 and won the World Cup ten years later,” Sheepshanks pointed out. “But first we have to increase the number of qualified coaches in this country.”

In football we too often send the least qualified coaches to coach the kids. That has to change and the only way it can is to create a career path.
Sheepshanks

It’s easy to see why. For a while the recent appointment of the highly respected Roy Hodgson as England manager was a deliberate move away from the reliance on foreign coaches, there is a marked dearth of Englishmen with the necessary training to follow in Hodgson’s footsteps.

According to the latest figures available, only 2,769 English coaches held UEFA’s B, A and Pro badges five years ago, compared to 23,995 in Spain, 29,420 in Italy, 34,970 in Germany and 17,588 in France. But if all goes according to plan, 800 coaches will be trained and qualified per year at St. George’s Park.

“We have seven million players in this country, with a coaching ratio of one to 69,” said Sheepshanks. “If we do it right and hit our target of having 250,000 coaches by 2018, the ratio will be one to 25. Better coaches produce better players.”

Elite focus
While other sports will be able to hire facilities at St. George’s Park, the main focus is on elite training both for coaches and the 24 national representative sides under the FA’s umbrella. The first squad to use St. George’s Park were England’s U-17 team in August, with the senior squad moving in before their FIFA World Cup qualifiers in October against San Marino and Poland.

“We need to use our collective energies to make this all gel but if we get this right, the FA should never need to appoint overseas and that will be a success measure going forward,” said Sheepshanks.

“Premier League teams are appointing foreign coaches because in their belief that is where they find the best talent. I don’t necessarily concur with that – we have some very talented coaches in this country but we don’t have enough. We need to develop more and more here so that they actually don’t go looking, in ten years’ time, overseas all the time.”

France opened Clairefontaine in 1988 and won the World Cup ten years later.
Sheepshanks

Officials recognise that the huge expense that has gone into the complex is somewhat of a gamble, but they are confident the money will ultimately be well spent, representing a long-term commitment to improve standards – not necessarily in Hodgson’s era but certainly down the road.

“People talk about team effort in sport, well this was certainly one of them,” says Sheepshanks. “At one point, about 3,800 people were working on the project. It was a bold decision when money was tight but I think it will pay off handsomely.”

Indeed, Sheepshanks is already planning a more festive use for the new facilities in the not-too-distant future. “We shouldn’t be under any illusions, this is a long-term plan. We are looking at the 2020s and anything that happens sooner is a bonus. But when, and not if, we win the next big championship – be it the EURO or the World Cup – we can put a marquee up inside and have a big bash!”     

Big fun on small pitches
As well as constructing the National Football Centre at St. George’s Park to produce better coaches to drive the game forward, equally important parallel initiatives are taking place to improve the quality of grassroots football throughout England.

Six months after the England senior team’s Round-of-16 exit at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the Football Association decided to produce a long-term plan to ensure that future generations of players are more comfortable in possession across the pitch. It carried out a youth development review which led to 25 recommendations calling for, among other things, young players to receive more touches on the ball and better proportioned pitches.

The recommendations, made after two-and-a-half years of research, were voted in by an 87 per cent majority and will be phased in from the 2013/14 season. They focus on a modern approach to youth football, challenging the win-at-all-costs mentality that is now thought to stifle development.

It is hoped that the new programme will transform the landscape of English football in a similar way to the overhaul which the German Football Association made to its own youth development system following Germany’s group-stage exit from UEFA EURO 2000.

“The research that we did showed that that we had been putting children on pitches that were too big for them too early,” Nick Levett, the FA’s national development manager and the man driving the new directive, explained. “We were imposing an adult format of football on young people. What they wanted from the game was different to what we had been giving them.”

From 2013/14, U-7 and U-8 kids will play five versus five, U-9s and U-10s seven versus seven and U-11s and U-12s nine against nine, all on mini-pitches.

“We know this will increase participation,” said Levett. “Among the feedback we have been getting, one kid said to me, ‘why have I got to defend a goal so big that adults must use a stepladder to get the nets down.’ We are putting kids on the same size pitches as adults and they are saying it’s not about skill and technique any more, it’s about who can kick it the furthest.

We were imposing an adult format of football on young people. What they wanted from the game was different to what we had been giving them.
Nick Levett, FA national development manager

“Small formats of the game clearly support more touches, more dribbles, more shots and more one-to-ones,” he said. “Seeing a little kid on an adult-sized pitch just looks stupid. It’s no coincidence that the Dutch have played four-versus-four for a long time. The Spanish have just increased the age at which they start eleven versus eleven.”

With parents sometimes losing sight of the fact that football is meant to be fun as well as competitive, the FA has also launched a free guide to encourage parents to provide appropriate support, highlighting examples of poor behaviour, such as criticism of referees or aggression towards other players, and how it can be improved. Another part of the process is a new competitions strategy, taking away league tables at primary school level in order to reduce the win-at-all-costs mentality.

Levett and his team recognise that a vast majority of kids who play the game for fun are never going to get near a professional team. In fact, the research shows there is a 0.0017 per cent chance of securing a professional contract at the age of 21. Nevertheless, the FA is confident that the new approach can benefit the senior team as well as the masses, for whom the sport will remain simply a hobby.

“The point is that making these changes makes the game better for a vast majority of young people that come into football. If we know it starts to create better players at grassroots level, by association it creates better players who also move through the professional game.”