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Misspent (Money on) Youth (Development)

If you were to give a small child, or an easily distracted adult even, a toy to play with, it would immediately discard the previous object of its affection in favour of this shiny, new, exciting alternative. The FA works pretty much in a similar way.

Around 30 years ago, the idea for a national training centre was proposed where the cream of English football talent, both playing and coaching staff, would convene to aid the development of English football as a whole. The centre would, the proponents of the project argued, enhance the standard of the England

But, over the last 30 years, various shiny, new, exciting ‘toys’ have taken the FA’s attention span away from the National Football Centre, ‘toys’ like one successful and two unsuccessful bids for major international football championships, rebuilding Wembley Stadium, various initiatives to tackle behaviour in football and so on.

And last week, we went completely full circle and the FA’s attention refocused back on to the National Football Centre, now called the St George’s Park National Football Centre, to make it more patriotic I suppose.

Since the FA acquired the land at Burton in 2001 for around £2 million, the organisation has spent £25 million on the project, this despite the fact that all work was suspended in 2004 to allow the FA to focus their resources on throwing more and more bundles of money down the Wembley bottomless hole.

Last week, the FA unveiled the latest incarnation of the project, to be completed by 2012 for it to host the British men and women’s Olympic football teams. The centre will house 12 outdoor and 1 indoor full-size pitches, including an exact replica of the Wembley pitch and a 142-room 4-star hotel and an 86-room 3-star hotel.

After the FA had to underwrite a £1.2 million shortfall on the project in November last year, it is hoped the Centre will be self-funding for the rest of its existence due to deals with its sponsor, Umbro and funding from the on-site Hilton hotels and conference facilities but let’s see just how many people want to have meetings in a rural location in Burton with a bunch of 16-year old footballers kicking footballs outside.

This is the latest attempt from the FA to produce a sea change in coaching in England from the top-down, with the Centre being the, well, centrepiece, of another initiative based on a change in mentality when it comes to youth coaching, emphasising on skill rather than strength and a ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality.

This, obviously, is a step forward as the youth coaching system in England has been in need of an overhaul for many years, as anyone that has played football at a youth level will tell you. Asking a 11-year old to play on a full size pitch in a full size goal is pure stupidity as it encourages the biggest and strongest players dominate, leaving the smaller, skilful players lagging behind.

If a system can be put in place where youth development is based on more ‘pass and move’ type football rather than strength and how far a kid can kick a ball, the national team will be better for it. If the St George’s Park National Football Centre can provide a framework for youth coaches to implement at grassroots level, then it will be a success. If it can bring together all of the national teams, from Under 16s to the senior team, and give them time together to practice and become a team, England will perform better at international tournaments.

However, call it cynical, but like everything the FA does, it appears to be something of a knee-jerk reaction , this time to the public reaction to England’s loss to Germany in the World Cup last year and the outcry about technically outstanding the German and Spanish teams were compared to England. This coupled with the too many foreigners in the Premier League argument becoming louder and louder, seems like the FA’s reaction to these outcries; an idea that should have implemented years and years ago.

If the FA was serious about the future of youth development in English football, they would have tackled the problem earlier, rather than spending money on a white elephant like Wembley, which helped no-one but the FA as it gave them a showpiece venue for their organisation, whilst also being the most misplaced plan for profit making machine since Hicks and Gillett took over Liverpool.

Here is hoping this venture of the FA’s will prove far more successful, it was overdue and if it can have a ‘Clarefontaine’ effect, we could be looking at a golden future for English football. Perhaps.

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