Complex issue

According to Gavin Willacy, Wembley isn't the FA's only major project not going to plan

Most of the Football Association’s many problems at present are dealt with on the back pages. But one major story has slipped through the net. The new Wembley has been beset by industrial action, financial difficulties and schedule set-backs, but these have been forgiven by everyone who catches a breath-taking glimpse of it taking shape.

However, the FA’s other major construction project has not gone according to plan. Indeed, the National Football Centre at Burton upon Trent has hit the buffers in spectacular but strangely muted fashion. In October 2001, work began on constructing a huge new complex that would see the FA’s elite teams move their training centres from the National Sports Centre at Lilleshall in Shropshire and Bisham Abbey in Buckinghamshire to one major hub in middle England. Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men were supposed to be based there, as were the junior national teams, as part of a concentration of our most talented players, coaches, physios and football thinkers.

Byrkley Park at Burton in Staffordshire was to be the English Clairefontaine, our version of the French FA’s hugely successful national football centre, established after failure at the highest level in the 1970s; or English football’s answer to the Australian Institute of Sport, one-time home to most of Australia’s world-class sports stars.

Instead, it is to become a high-class Hackney Marshes. The 350-acre site now has eight grass pitches and two synthetic ones. There are floodlights and under-soil heating, and some seminar rooms for pitch-side learning. The luxurious accommodation, the hi-tech weights rooms, fitness suites and medical facilities are nowhere to be seen – construction was halted in May 2004 when Adam Crozier’s spending spree as FA chief executive caused financial fallout at Soho Square.

The FA Board visited the half-built site in September last year and then met to discuss their options. They decided to do nothing. In March they issued a statement: “The FA is actively exploring options for constructing and operating appropriate accommodation in order to use the first-class pitches that have been laid at the Byrkley Park site.” In other words, they need to actually start using these damned pitches sharpish or face some very fierce questions.

With the cost of Wembley standing at £757 million, the FA realised that spending another £15m on Burton, where the land itself cost £15m,was irresponsible or even impossible. Before Wembley was closed in 2000, England based themselves at the luxurious Burnham Beeches hotel and trained down the road at Bisham Abbey. Since then, they have utilised the closest elite facilities to wherever

they have been playing. With many Premiership clubs such as Manchester United, Arsenal, Middlesbrough and Liverpool investing huge sums in training grounds that they use every day, the FA have ready-made facilities to hire before the half-a-dozen senior internationals held in England each year. England’s junior teams continue to train at the most suitable pro clubs. With five-star hotels in every city, the FA could hardly justify building their own luxurious accommodation at Burton.

The only other major team sport in England who could afford to build their own complex have not bothered: the Rugby Football Union use a five-star hotel and training complex in Bagshot, Surrey, while the bricks-and-mortar investment is in the towering Twickenham.

The FA’s decision to abbreviate the scheme has led to them being criticised for short-term thinking. “If it’s not going ahead it’s bad news for the England team and for encouraging young English talent,” Gordon Taylor told the Observer before adding, somewhat spuriously, “especially as we import more foreign players than any other country”. Some, however would doubt that English talent will be stymied because they do not get to sleep in a luxury pad in deepest Staffordshire after international training sessions. Another former FA chief executive, Graham Kelly, threw his two-penn’orth in: “It’s very disappointing to hear that the National Football Centre is going to be scrapped or scaled down considerably. Building it would act as a beacon for the whole game and bring many benefits. I have always thought that we need exactly such a centre to bring together expertise in one place.” But surely that can be done without spending £15m on hotel rooms, conference facilities and gyms? Improved communication networks and shared knowledge, as demonstrated by the excellent FA Coaches’ Association and several other areas in which the FA have made hugely impressive strides this millennium, is the key.

The FA seem to have made a (rare) sensible decision, albeit rather late. No doubt, basic accommodation will be constructed, along with medical facilities so that training camps and matches can take place soon for juniors and perhaps even elite non-League players. But you do have to wonder if the millions spent so far couldn’t have been put to better use.

From WSC 219 May 2005. What was happening this month