English football is to have a new national centre but after six years and £25m of investment, the whole project could still be uprooted from its original site at Burton-upon-Trent and moved closer to London. The Football Association board want the centre to develop the future English coaches who will one day be qualified to succeed the new England manager, Fabio Capello.
The 12-man FA board yesterday voted unanimously for a national football centre in principle but there is still nothing definite that it will be located on the Burton site. While FA sources described Burton as a "probability rather than a possibility", the Ipswich Town chairman, David Sheepshanks, yesterday urged the FA board to investigate alternative sites closer to London.
With £25m already sunk into Burton it is estimated that a further £50m at least will be needed to finish the job and a separate company was established by the FA board yesterday to oversee its development – much like the Wembley process. Sir Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of youth development, urged the FA board members to back the plan although even he knew that asking for Burton to become a centre for developing young players would be too ambitious.
The Premier League have no intention of allowing the national football centre to cut across their academy system and take the development of young footballers away from the clubs. Instead the centre will be a home for the England teams at all levels when they are preparing for international matches and, as the
FA said, "a nerve centre" for English football which will develop coaches and attempt to be at the forefront of the game's latest developments.
Once the centre is built, it has been proposed that certain departments from the FA's Soho Square headquarters could be moved there and yesterday the board discussed the financial logistics of paying for the development. Despite the FA chief executive Brian Barwick's confident pledge that his organisation would bring in £1bn over the next four to five years, there are still fears among some board members that an underperforming Wembley could hit the centre's development.
The FA or their new chairman, Lord Triesman, who is set to be the first independent FA chairman, do not want the centre to be another Wembley saga. Having listened to presentations from Stuart Pearce, the England Under-21s manager, and Steve Wigley, in charge of player development for the 17-21 age group, the board agreed that the development should be linked to a hotel and conference facility in order to help fund it. There was a unanimous vote including David Gill, the Manchester United chief executive who could not attend in person.
Given that the FA board also asked for what a spokesman said was a "detailed exploration of the business and funding plans" it does not appear they will tolerate the FA allowing the budget to run out of control as it did over Wembley. They met at the De Vere Wokefield Park Hotel near Reading which also encompasses BMW's corporate academy where staff are trained. It is regarded as one of the best examples of a joint hotel and training operation and was toured by the FA board before the meeting.
Having been told by members of the board such as Sir Dave Richards and Lord Mawhinney that they had reservations about the speed of Capello's appointment process, Barwick will have been relieved to get the Burton vote approved. The FA chief executive has probably had his best month in charge since taking the job almost two years ago with the appointment of Capello and getting the Burton project passed.
He said: "I'm delighted that the board has given the green light for a national football centre. This is a major step forward for the project. There was general agreement within the board that a national football centre would be a major asset in the development of players, coaches and referees in this country."
Since work was halted on Burton two years ago as Wembley's costs spiralled out of control and then FA chief executive Adam Crozier was forced out, the Burton project has been a major embarrassment for the governing body. The site costs about £500,000 in upkeep every year and although the 12 pitches have been completed they have only ever been used by local teams for training.
Vast sums have been spent in acquiring the 350-acre site west of Burton and then flattening it in anticipation of the construction that never began. The pitches all have an eco-friendly, state-of-the-art recycling system that re-uses rainwater and the FA even went as far as paying around £335,000 to build a roundabout at a junction near the site that was a notorious local accident blackspot.
The roundabout was part of gaining planning permission from East Staffordshire borough council who say that the planning process will not have to be undertaken again unless the FA radically changes its plans. However, the cost of designing and obtaining permission should the FA move to a new site is likely to be steep. Barwick implied yesterday that the FA would make the centre a cutting edge development.
"It [the vote] is an acceptance that this is about time we got under way with the national football centre," he said. "Coaching coaches, coaching players, player development, coaching education – all the things that a football association should be doing, we are going to be doing."
When Howard Wilkinson, then the FA's technical director, unveiled the original plans for Burton in November 2001 he promised "the best talent, the best teachers, the best equipment and the best facilities". Wilkinson was never explicit that Burton would be the English equivalent of France's famous Clairefontaine academy, where the best of schoolboy talent is developed intensively, but that option was never a serious consideration come yesterday's vote because of Premier League opposition.
However, Burton, which was due to be ready for 2004, was originally to have a gym and physiology, hydrotherapy, sports science and sports medicine units as well as accommodation for 300 people. Among the 12 pitches there was to be one indoor surface covered by a glass roof where cameras would enable coaches to show players action playbacks from their training matches on video screens.
Brooking spoke for the FA's coaches when he said he was "hugely encouraged by the extremely positive reception [to Burton] from both the professional and grass-roots game". However, given the troubled history of this project, the journey is far from over yet.