5 December ~ A day after England's flaws were once again fatally exposed by their Wembley defeat against France, the announcement came from the FA: work to rebuild the national game would begin in January. The governing body confirmed that construction of the much-vaunted National Football Centre at Burton (also known as St George's Park) would start in the New Year, with a completion date of summer 2012. Finally the project that has been portrayed as a panacea for English ills is back on track.
It was fitting that the news should come less than 24 hours after England had failed miserably to match the technique, tactics and instincts of the French. The centre, after all, has been dubbed as England's answer to the famous Clairefontaine academy. The comparisons, though, are misleading. Clairefontaine is famed for its production of top players, such Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka, as well as being a centre for the national team. Every year young French footballers, aged between 13 and 15, compete for places at the school of excellence where they will live five days a week and receive the best football education France can buy. The system of regional centres filters the best young talents in the country and channels them through this central academy to produce elite footballers.
In contrast, the FA's vision is to create a hub that will spread a new football culture throughout the country, to distribute knowledge rather than centralise talent. Its mission briefs are to produce coaches, recruit referees, advance sports science and accommodate national teams, from Under-16 through to senior levels. At the heart of the FA's plan is to train 250,000 coaches by 2018 to counter the perceived technical and tactical shortcomings of English youngsters throughout the country. So rather than churning out the talent to take England to another World Cup, they hope to reform coaching and raise the standard of youngsters entering the professional game with clubs' academies.
As David Sheepshanks, chairman of the National Football Centre board, said: "This is not a finishing school for young players, that role is carried out very well by the Premier League and Football League clubs, this has a different slant. This is not an academy and is not in competition with our professional clubs." In this respect the National Football Centre will have more in common with the Dutch's KNVB base in Zeist or Italy's Coverciano academy. So, will focusing on coaching standards transform the national game?
Establishing a focal point for Club England may have a galvanising effect, but it is in coach education that the FA are demanding progress. The perception that English youngsters are still technically and tactically inferior to their foreign counterparts remains. Arming the nation with FA Level One coaching badges will not turn everyone into José Mourinhos – the syllabus doesn't include technique, let alone tactics or football philosophies. But raising the quality of all coaching should drive up the standards of young players.
However England's football identity is defined by more than just coaching. And there are many other factors to contend with: an apathy towards futsal and five-a-side; the premature introduction to 11-a-side football; the weather; a top flight that is often technically inferior to its competitors and, ultimately, a very different football culture. That the National Football Centre has taken almost ten years to advance from conception to construction suggests the FA knows it will not transform the English game overnight. A slow grassroots revolution, though, would be significant progress. Jon McLeod