The National Football Centre: Is It Actually Worthwhile For English Youth Development?

wilkinson-burton“This can kick-start English football and it would, over time, move us forward with a huge leap. That would not, obviously, happen immediately, but given two or three years it would start making a clear difference.” So says Howard Wilkinson, architect of the original plan for The Football Association to build a National Football Centre at Burton-on-Trent.

Henry Winter put it at number one on his ten point plan “to save English football” following the World Cup:

1. Build Burton. For the £50 million-plus that the Football Association has spent on England managers in compensation, wages and pay-offs since 2000, the National Football Centre could have been up and running and nurturing home-grown managers, ensuring the FA did not automatically have to look overseas. This university of football should finally be open by 2012, allowing England to adopt a more intelligent approach to developing players and coaches, and focusing on conditioning, preventing injuries and sports science. It will be the home of all the national age-group teams, fostering more of a Team England philosophy and continuity between sides.

Club England Managing Director Adrian Bevington called the centre, to be known as St George’s Park, “England’s university of football”.

Trevor Brooking, the Football Association’s head of youth development, said “St George’s Park will be something to be proud of – a symbol of national pride and hope for the future.”

The centre is today facing a legal challenge from local residents, causing a stir as journalists like Henry Winter pronounce England’s World Cup woes should override any concerns. As he put it on Twitter: “worldcup woes proved need for National Football Centre. Local concern over 28 new homes or national fear for #ENG? Easy. NFC must be built”. In fact, the Telgraph’s leading football writer fired off four increasingly hysterical tweets about the need for the centre, as suddenly it became the cure to childhood obesity, to the economy, to the revitilisation of the region and more:

“So much at stake with Burton. NFC would help #ENG, would help tackle schoolkid obesity, would help economy. 28 new houses small price to pay”

“Government says it wants a strong #ENG so Whitehall must help FA and E Staffs council in dismissing planning complaint over NFC”

“Burton area lacks great landmarks. So it would be sad if a few individuals ruined area’s chance to be site of world-renowned Home of England”

“Burton area needs investment in construction & jobs. At a time of economic crisis, National Football Centre will help 1000s in the region”

The National Football Centre was first supposed to open in 2003. At best, it will now open in 2012. The failure of the FA to get it opened since then and the unsurprising failure of England to win the World Cup in the period sense has made the non-existence of the Centre a symbol of English football’s problems, and the need for it to exist deemed as imperative.

But what if the NFC wouldn’t actually do much for the development of young players? Rob Freeman at Two Hundred Percent argues that its impact on producing better talent would be minimal, because it would only take in the already identified elite national team players from the age group of U-16 and up:

If the NFC opened it’s doors today, the youngest player who would get the benefit would be probably be fourteen year old Sheffield United goalkeeper George Willis, Manchester City midfielder Shay Facey would be the only other player born as recently as 1995 who would get any access to it. The NFC is for the England squads from the national side down to U16 level. The suggestion is that Burton would become the equivalent of the Clairefontaine Academy in France, however Clairefontaine is not a national academy. It’s one of eight regional one, and in twenty years, it has produced ten French Internationals (as well as three full Internationals for other countries), but these include Hatem Ben Arfa, Jimmy Briand, Philippe Christanval and Jerome Rothen. Rather than group all their talent into one place, the French Football Federation spread it around. Fabio Capello has suggested that the NFC is needed as an equivalent of the Italian Coverciano, but the Coverciano doesn’t produce players, as the FA are claiming that the NFC will do.

As Brooking mentioned above, this is a university, a finishing school at the elite level, not the key to developing talent at the critical younger ages nationwide. There’s a strong suspicion that this is more about spending a lot of money to build a nice training facility for the England national teams than for the purpose of youth development, something Sam Wallace also pointed to in the Independent this January:

The site for Burton, where the England team will be staying once the project is complete, is 105 miles from Wembley. Someone tell Shaun Wright-Phillips to make sure his PSP is fully charged because that could be one long journey. Either that or shall we start playing England internationals at the Pirelli Stadium?

There will be a sports science department at Burton and there is a hope that as well as making it available to the six junior England teams from the Under-16s to the Under-21s (those hotel staff won’t know what’s hit them), it will be a teaching base for coaches. The Italians have Coverciano, a kind of university for football managers, and the FA want Burton to be something similar.

Otherwise, all Burton seems to be is a rather inconveniently located base for the England team that is used when the national team happens to be playing at Wembley, on average about six times a year. The Coverciano idea is a nice one, but is it worth the money and pain that has been poured into Burton from the start?

The English FA is pretty much alone among national football associations in owning its own stadium – and given the debt on Wembley “owning” might not be the right word. The historical connection with Wembley meant it was right that the FA built the £757m stadium, however painful it was at times. To build a six-times-a-year training ground as well seems excessive.

Fabio Capello says that Burton is essential and what Capello wants he tends to get. But just because Capello studied at Coverciano and just because he finds the Grove hotel a little too lacking in privacy at times (HM Wormwood Scrubs is more his idea of an ideal team base camp) does not mean he is right. Chances are that Capello will not be in the job when Burton is finished.

Italy’s Coverciano facility, like France’s Clairefontaine, has become mythically important as a model. This breathless BBC News article on Coverciano makes it sounds like Verrocchio’s workshop:

Coverciano is about more than sporting facilities. There is the museum, where an array of memorabilia celebrating Italy’s footballing heritage is displayed in a permanent exhibition, and a lecture theatre where seminars and courses on the arts of football coaching are conducted.

Nearby is the library, where books and periodicals dedicated to football are stored, and where visitors are given an insight into the intellectual development of some of the sport’s most famous names.

Vanni pulls out a dusty pamphlet entitled ‘Il Futuro del Calcio: Piu Dinamicita’ – ‘The Future of Football: More Dynamism’. It is the original thesis that Carlo Ancelotti wrote when studying for his Master Course here in 1997, full of charts, diagrams and conclusions.

Next he shows us Fabio Capello’s study of “The Zonal Marking System”, a piece of research he completed in 1984 when a student here. Next is Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini’s 2001 pamphlet, “Il Trequartista”, dedicated to examining the role of the attacking midfielder.

Coverciano is so much more than simply a base for Italian football. It represents a belief; that the art and science of football is a discipline that can be studied and mastered, and then shared for the benefit of the whole sport.

Its role is not to develop young players, the Serie A clubs have responsibility for doing that. Rather, it is to provide the ideal conditions in which coaches of every age-group can come to learn their craft, go back to their clubs and aid the development of the game’s players.

Lovely. And sure, it’d be nice to have such a place that sets a national tone for coaching beyond mud and spittle. But of more urgency than that, and perhaps worth spending some of the £100 million that St George’s Park will cost, are these alarming raw numbers from Owen Gibson this June:

New Uefa data shows that there are only 2,769 English coaches holding Uefa’s B, A and Pro badges, its top qualifications. Spain has produced 23,995, Italy 29,420, Germany 34,970 and France 17,588.

Between them those four nations have provided eight of the 12 finalists at all the World Cups and European Championships since 1998. England, meanwhile, have not appeared in a tournament final in 44 years.

There are 2.25 million players in England and only one Uefa-qualified coach for every 812 people playing the game. Spain, the World Cup favourites, have 408,134 players, giving a ratio of 1:17. In Italy, the world champions, the ratio is 1:48, in France it is 1:96, Germany 1:150 and even Greece, the Euro 2004 winners, have only 180,000 registered players for their 1,100 coaches, a ratio of 1:135.

Where are the questions about how coaching nationwide in England is going to be developed to improve these raw numbers? The system as it stands clearly has something very wrong with it, as this piece by Les Reid (a former FA Technical Director) indicates, looking at the “Approved Centres” that coaches train at. It seems to be a system that is more about keeping itself in business than anything else:

The counties or licensed, approved coach education centres governed by a company called First 4 sport deliver coaching courses from level 1 to level three. They employ (at the candidates expense) Tutors, Assessors, Internal and external verifiers who monitor the courses. The majority of these do not coach players or teams or have not done so for many years. It is financially more rewarding not to. Other than courses for professional players, delivered by the PFA, all of these courses are delivered by part time tutors. It is these courses that aspiring Academy Coaches have to attend before being allowed to take the Youth Coaches Awards or Academy Directors License.

While St George’s Park might be a worthwhile facility for English football to have, the danger for England is that the overwhelming focus and funding expended on this diverts the conversation from the need to do more than build a finishing school for a small number of elite coaches and players already at national team level.

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