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Oct 9, 2013

St George's Park built to last

Head of FA Learning, Jamie Houchen spoke about the impact St. George's Park has had since it opened last year

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, England -- As the train chugs into Burton-Upon-Trent station, smoke billows into the sky from the Pirelli tyre factory and Marston's brewery. An industrial outpost in East Staffordshire, the town appears an unlikely destination for the beating heart of English football, but just a couple of miles west lies one of the most impressive sporting centres in the world. The new St George's Park, opened exactly a year ago, holds the hopes of a nation in its hands.

This is not Clairefontaine, the renowned French academy that produced a generation of World Cup and European championship-winning talent. England's National Football Centre is not dedicated solely to building promising youngsters towards future success; the remit is far more wide-reaching. At grassroots level through to the elite, the coaches, referees and players now have a state-of-the art facility at which to hone their trade.

Originally mooted back in 1975, the road to creating a central hub for English football has been an arduous one. The sprawling Burton site was originally purchased in 2001 on the recommendation of the FA's then-technical director Howard Wilkinson but, having been due to open in 2003, the operation was put on hold due to the spiralling costs of the new Wembley Stadium. It appeared grassroots was sacrificed for grandeur, with many unimpressed that a perceived vanity project in the national stadium should take precedence over player development.

It was England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008 that stirred interest again, and pressure mounted to deal with the 330-acre elephant in the room. After £ 110 million of investment and 11 years of stop-start construction, St George's Park had its marquee opening on Oct. 9, 2012 -- with FA president Prince William in attendance.

Winding up the drive to the National Football Centre through fields of cattle and sheep, it feels more like a stately home than a sporting institute. The setting is magnificent, and it is difficult not to be inspired by the pristine pitches, luxurious hotel and world-class training facilities that are packed in. St George's Park possesses some of the most advanced rehabilitation equipment in the world, with its physios dishing out sessions on anti-gravity treadmills and underwater running tracks. It is not just football that is serviced, either, as elite rugby, cricket, hockey and basketball players are among those to have benefitted.

Fifty professional football clubs have used the facilities since its opening, while local side Burton Albion are frequent visitors -- a novelty that one feels will never wear off for the League Two outfit. At the grassroots level, 231 clubs and 28 schools played at the National Football Centre in its first nine months, while there were 34 coaching courses delivered.

For head of FA learning Jamie Houchen, the first year at St George's Park has shown that the complex, which is a world away from the rather dated former home of English youth development at Lilleshall, is living up to expectations.

"It was always our aspiration and dream -- to have our own home and harbour education," Houchen tells ESPN. "You experience the same mile-long drive in to the building as you did at Lilleshall and that's probably where the similarities finish. We're fortunate as a brand new £100 million investment, it's quite rightly state-of-the-art facilities. We researched comprehensively around the world and -- at what is a world-class sporting facility -- we've benefitted from other people's knowledge and experience and clearly we've been able to create what we think is exactly needed for the English game and English football to deliver this.

"[It's been an] absolutely outstanding [response]. I think everybody as they come down that driveway and see the facilities, it has a 'wow' factor. It's unique: We have a full-size indoor third-generation facility, we have sports science facilities that are second to none and we have everything under one roof, plus of course the health and hotel facilities which give us that opportunity of residential education. It is unique and it is the best footballing education centre, we think, in Europe, not only because it's the newest but because it's been built with an awful lot of thought and creativity.

"In the first three months of being open, every one of our 600 coach educators came through the door to be re-galvanised, enthused, inspired by the thought of this place becoming their home for the next 10 years, to develop and help them become better educated. For me, that was an immediate win because they've gone back out to the game that they service all around the country with a real belief that this place will make a difference to their work on a daily basis."

The FA has seen the success of Spain and Germany and there is a belief that, like they have done, building from the bottom up rather than filtering from the top down is the best way forward. St George's Park certainly provides an enviable foundation from which to achieve that goal of a more technically proficient nation of players, which in turn, it is hoped, will reverse England's fortunes on the international stage. "Education" is a buzzword at the FA, and with the rambling greenery of St George's Park somewhat reminiscent of a university campus, a scholastic approach seems fitting.

"I think the uniqueness of St George's Park is that it's a home very much for education more so than players," Houchen explains. "It really is the Cambridge and Oxford of the football world. It's where we want to educate coaches to then cascade that to players, as opposed to a place for players to purely train and develop their own skills and become better players.

"The FA has a responsibility for the whole game and I think we've done it really well for 150 years.  Grassroots football is obviously where the FA invests heavily in terms of coaching expertise. We have regional networks of coaches and staff that deliver and support both county FA and coaching courses but, ultimately, we're all hopefully wise enough to appreciate that a professional footballer starts in the grassroots game -- the same as a professional coach would put his hours in and learn his trade in the grassroots game -- so we can influence and develop that environment to not only retain as many players and coaches as possible but also enable every one of those players and coaches to reach their potential."

The tangible impact of the National Football Centre will not be measurable for some years but then it was never designed to be a quick fix, more an affirmation of the need for better long-term planning.  For the 24 England teams of various age and gender who are now benefitting from a central training and rehabilitation hub, major international success is not being immediately demanded. English football now has a noble new nucleus, but there must remain an understanding that it may be a generation before the rewards can really be reaped.

"What St George's Park isn't going to do is give us a winning England tomorrow or at the World Cup -- as much as we'd like it to," Houchen says. "But what is does give us is a concrete platform for development -- for sustainable education delivered in a modern way which will give every one of our players the best possible opportunity to develop."

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