The road to nowhere

In his home town of Burton Mark Rowe discovers the FA's latest "white elephant"

My home town of Burton upon Trent has few claims to fame. It once had two teams in the League. I was at junior school with the younger sister of Garry Stanley, who played for Chelsea. Last season Burton Albion took Manchester United to an FA Cup third-round replay. You can still see the commemorative scarves at the Pirelli Stadium, no doubt complying with all intellectual property laws, half in United ­colours, half in Burton’s yellow and black.

Burton has become famous for being near something famous, the FA’s proposed national football centre. Its name is in fact Byrkley Lodge, a couple of miles out of town, nearer the village of Rangemore. Unsignposted, from the road you can see only a pair of padlocked metal five-barred gates and a road leading into trees and gently rolling fields.

The FA spent around £20 ­million, it is said, on buying land, making eight grass and two synthetic pitches, and floodlights. For three years, behind the “Strictly no unauthorised entry” sign, not a lot has gone on. Albion have paid the FA a fee to train there for the last year – taking their own goalposts and having to shower at the Pirelli – and the club’s development squad plays matches there in private.

A year ago the FA agreed a smaller version of the plan. But according to a leaked letter from the FA to a local MP in early September, the FA want to avoid “any further financial risk”. Recent speculation has it that David Beckham may buy it to add to his London coaching academy. Even this news cannot rouse Burtonians, generally a docile lot (rather like Albion fans). Yes, it’s a scandalous and embarrassing waste, but at least it’s out of sight – the Millennium Dome is in full view at Greenwich, but you have to trespass to see Byrkley Lodge.

Albion manager Nigel Clough did tell the Burton Mail in mid-September: “Rangemore is a superb facility and we would welcome anyone who retains its use for the benefit of football. I don’t know whether a David Beckham soccer school is a serious proposition, but it would certainly keep the site close to what was originally intended.”

Beckham, or any other purchaser, would get a “perfect location” according to Howard Wilkinson, when FA technical director in 2001. At the risk of sounding like an estate agent, the area has all the modern footballer could need. Up the road, a private airfield could take helicopters. Nearby is Hoar Cross Hall, a health spa as used by Frank Bruno. And the first pub on the road to Burton, the New Inn, has parking for coaches (and welcomes bikers).

I may be about to ruin my town’s business opportunity of the century, but did the FA ever have to enter the luxury resort market? My part of the Midlands has no end of hotels and spas for those with more money than sense. Before the June 2003 friendly against Serbia at Leicester, the England squad stayed at Champneys Springs at Ashby. That has a full-sized football pitch and “thalassotherapy” pool (from the Greek thalassa, or sea). After the rumoured sale of the site featured on the regional part of The Politics Show, feedback on the BBC website was that Byrkley Lodge was “a waste of money from the start”, “a white elephant”.

It seems a lot longer than six years since the FA set out their original vision of the site as the equivalent of the French training centre at Clairefontaine, commonly credited with a major role in France winning the 1998 World Cup. Whatever happens, the 2010 World Cup will not be won on the playing fields of Burton upon Trent.

From WSC 237 November 2006. What was happening this month