(Corrects location of facility in eighth paragraph.)
England’s plan to win its first soccer title since the 1966 World Cup is focused as much on developing coaches as players at its new 100 million pound ($158 million) facility.
Work is nearing completion on St. George’s Park, the Football Association’s National Football Centre 126 miles northwest of London. The center is expected to open by September and will be a training base for national teams and an education facility whose main aim is to produce more top level coaches.
“If you get better coaches then you get better players,” project chairman David Sheepshanks said in an interview after a tour of the 330-acre facility near Burton-upon-Trent. “The more you go on doing that as a continuous process, then inexorably we should reach the top.”
England, which has failed in 22 world and European championship campaigns since winning its only major title 46 years ago, has 10 times fewer qualified coaches than Spain and Italy, the last two world champions, and three-time winner Germany. Those countries each have about 30,000 licensed managers, according to European governing body UEFA. When Spain won its first World Cup in 2010, it had one qualified coach for every 17 players. The ratio in England was one to 812.
Sheepshanks, the 59-year-old former chairman of the Football League and regional chairman of Coutts & Co Ltd., bankers to Queen Elizabeth II, has overseen St. George’s Park since the development was resurrected two years ago after being mothballed in 2001.
When the England team assembles there in October it will mark the end of a journey for a project that stalled for a decade because of a shortage of cash, and political infighting, according to former F.A. executive director David Davies, who was with the organization when it bought the land in 2001.
“The reality is the F.A. board has been for many generations dysfunctional because there’s so much conflict of interest,” Davies said in an interview. “Sometimes it was actually quite easy for those who were instinctively opposed to a national football center to block for as long as they could.”
The delay bought Sheepshanks and his staff some time to assess training facilities around the world. His team visited the Dutch soccer federation headquarters in Zeist, Italy’s Coverciano technical center near Florence, Cuidad de Futbol in Madrid and the German Sport University in Cologne.
The main inspiration was France’s national technical center, or Centre Technique National Fernand-Sastre, at Clairefontaine, Davies said. It opened in 1988 and honed the skills of players including Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry, who helped France win its only World Cup in 1998 and its second European Championship two years later.
“We really have tried to look very carefully at what the rest of the world are doing,” said Sheepshanks, clad in a high visibility jacket, hard hat and steel toe-capped boots. “We’ve probably been plagiarists in some areas of their best habits with their permission and the best features. We’ve come home to try and create something that’s best for English football.”
Unlike Clairefontaine, St. George’s Park won’t be a permanent training center for young athletes. Instead, its role will be to educate future coaches who’ll be sent to teams from grassroots to the elite Premier League, Sheepshanks said.
“We have less qualified coaches in this country then many of our neighbors,” he said. “We need to address that.”
St. George’s Park will also incorporate 228 rooms in two hotels operated by Hilton Worldwide Inc. (HLT) and conferencing facilities. The suite set aside for the England manager looks out over fields toward a line of Wellingtonias, evergreen trees introduced to Britain in 1853 following the death of the Duke of Wellington, the former soldier and lawmaker.
Just who will occupy the room is unknown as the F.A. is still seeking a replacement for Fabio Capello, the Italian coach who quit the job in February. His successor will be expected to play a role in promoting the new center.
“There’s nothing more important than having the most senior management position in English football espousing the virtues of St. Georges Park,” Sheepshanks said. “I have absolutely no doubt that whoever takes the position will do just that.”
While the center must be a home to the 24 England affiliated teams, it needs to pay its way. Critics of the project questioned the outlay on a specialist soccer facility so far from Wembley Stadium, where England plays all its home matches, when the F.A. could have leased existing properties such as university grounds.
The site also includes a sports science and medicine center, an indoor pitch and 11 outdoor pitches, including a replica of the surface at Wembley.
Sheepshanks said he’s talked to rugby, cricket and golf officials in England to gauge their interest in using the facilities to ensure St. George’s Park isn’t a financial drain on the F.A., which had net income of 9 million pounds from sales of 304 million pounds for the year ended Dec. 31, 2010.
Although partners including Hilton and Spire Healthcare Ltd. pay nothing up front, they share revenue with the governing body. Sheepshanks, who said the F.A. needs to account for about 25 percent of the 80,000 annual bed nights, projected losses before breaking even in the third year.
“It will take many years for this project to really derive all the benefits to English football,” he said. “This is a long-term play, but I hope it’ll have a short-term bounce.”
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