22 January ~ There was a rustling in the long grass this week – the National Football Centre was actually moving a step closer. Although the establishment of the centre, at Burton on Trent, had received FA approval in June 2008 wrangling over its purpose and the financial drain of Wembley had stalled the project. The idea of a national centre goes back to the early 1970s, but the current plan arose in Howard Wilkinson's Charter for Quality in 1997. In that guise it was a centre for both coach education and player development, triggering opposition from clubs who feared that it might lead to a dilution of their ownership of young players. The clubs have won – the centre will now focus on coaching.
When he was appointed last year the FA chief executive, Ian Watmore, saw the establishment of the centre as one of his priorities but in the context of a four-year plan for financial stability. The FA are still mired in financial difficulties from the building costs for Wembley and their new headquarters in Soho Square plus the collapse of Setanta. Sponsorship from Umbro will be a major part of meeting the anticipated £100 million cost while extra income will come from the sale of rights to two on-site hotels plus other commercial activities.
This week marks the launch of public consultation on the project. Stuart Pearce has offered a characteristically enthusiastic endorsement on the FA website while Fabio Capello has drawn a parallel with the Italian FA's facility at Coverciano. But the most telling contribution is from Sir Trevor Brooking who put improved coach education into the context of English football's need to develop players with better technical abilities, players who can attack by taking on opponents and defenders who can pass and look comfortable on the ball. None of it original or a surprise but it is encouraging to hear this acknowledged as an aim for the centre.
The launch has also provided a sense of what the centre will look like, with the 330 acres providing full-size pitches – 12 outside and one indoor, a sports hall and a new centre for sports medicine and sports science. The centre – now named as St George's Park – will also act as the training base for the England side and 21 other squads supported by the FA. The use of the site as a base for England home games acts as an illustration of one of the major criticisms of the centre – its location. Although the FA make a compelling case for Burton being the base as it's close to major transport links, critics still see it as a potential “white elephant” too far from major football venues and a significant distance from Wembley.
The plan from now is to have planning permission and funding in place for July and the centre open in April 2012. Perhaps those are the easy tasks. In the end it's not whether the centre exists or not, it is whether the clubs buy into its aims with enthusiasm by appointing the generation of potential managers it produces and adopting its coaching philosophies that will be the measure of its success. Brian Simpson