University for Football Aims to Reach All; It Is Deliberately Located in the Heart of the Country, but England's New Training Centre Has a Very Strong North East Flavour. Sir Bob Murray Shows Stuart Rayner around St George's Park
IF that doesn't motivate them, I don't know what will," says the quietly-spoken football evangelist in the hard hat. "Coming soon from the makers of the Academy of Light comes St George's Park, the English nerve-centre so long in the making most had given up on it. In 15 weeks it will open.
For years Burton was a national embarrassment. Nothing to do with local team Albion, but because it was home to a very expensive pipe dream.
In 2001 the Football Association bought the 350-acre former home to the Bass family to build a training ground for players, coaches and referees. For seven years the project stuttered and stopped, mothballed while the FA's other lavish, snail-paced brainchild, Wembley, took priority.
Then Sir Bob Murray took over and things started to happen.
Sunderland chairman at a time of yo-yoing fortunes, Murray - then plain "Bob", which he prefers - was much maligned, but left a grand legacy. Paying for the Stadium and Academy of Light may or may not have slowed on-field progress, but the latter is quoted by almost every signing as a decisive wow factor. Designed by County Durham-born Alan Smith, architect of the Academy and Sunderland's Aquatic Centre, St George's has much loftier ambitions.
"It's a university of football," Murray says. "If it's not aspirational, I don't know what is. We're going to have a total step-change at every level. It's taking our learning to a totally new level.
"A lot of people haven't believed in it because they've been jilted at the altar. It's not until these last couple of months people have seen the reality. It's early days but nobody's disappointed.
"Wembley's the best stadium in the world for sport. We have the stage but we don't have the actors. If there's been an excuse in this area, that's been taken away. "The FA have put their hand in their pocket in the middle of the worst recession I can remember.
"I think clubs will use it for preseason training or whatever, but it's about learning - coaching, coaching, coaching, coaching."
With the PFA, LMA, Referees Association, and FA Learning and Performance Analysis departments relocating, the idea is to have as much of the football family under one roof as possible, sharing best practice. "They need to understand each other, don't they?" argues Murray. "All these people are going to meet each other and be together. I think football's suffered from a lack of that in the past."
It will be elite, but not exclusive. Although the hotel has plenty of rooms designed so England players can be cordoned off from Joe Public (they have their own entrance and check-in desk), the intention is a facility for everyone. A Sunday league footballer with a snapped Achilles and the right private health plan could be referred to the high-tech physiotherapy block. The on-site hotel - split between three-star and posh Hilton rooms - does more than subsidise the complex, bringing the paying public into its heart. …