Howard Wilkinson: St George’s Park is what I dreamed of 14 years ago INTERVIEW

Howard Wilkinson.
Howard Wilkinson.
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The man who first pushed for the creation of a national football centre in the late Nineties has preached patience if England are to reap the long-term benefits of the new St George’s Park.

Former Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday manager Howard Wilkinson was yesterday at the opening of the new £105m St George’s Park in Burton upon Trent.

Hailed as “key to the future of English football” by FA chairman David Bernstein, the 330-acre site houses training facilities along with sports-science, rehabilitation and accommodation.

All England’s 24 teams, from the seniors through to the junior boys and girls squads, will be based at the complex and make use of the 11 full-size training pitches. An exact replica of Wembley has also been built, to be used exclusively for Roy Hodgson’s men.

Yesterday, St George’s Park was given a Royal seal of approval when the state-of-the-art complex was formally opened by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

It marked the fulfilment of a vision first put forward by Wilkinson, when the FA technical director, in 1998.

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post last night, the 68-year-old said: “It would have been better to have been built 10 years earlier but we can’t look back.

“We are where we are and must make the most of this fantastic facility.

“St George’s Park has got just about everything I planned to include when I got the previous architect in to draw up those first plans.

“I would say it has to be the best in the world, even if it is a shame that we are 10 years down the line compared to where we could be.

“Now, we have only 30 per cent of the players in the Premier League being English and that is ground that we have lost,” added Wilkinson.

The Park represents the FA emulating several of their European counterparts in making a long-term investment in trying to improve standards across the game.

Both France and Spain went on to enjoy World Cup and European Championship success after building similar facilities in Clairefontaine and Madrid respectively.

Germany, too, responded to flopping at Euro 2000 by launching an overhaul of their own set-up and are now regarded to be one of the most exciting sides in the world.

Speaking about the FA’s new centre, Wilkinson added: “Spain have been going down this road for 20 years and we all know how well they have done lately.

“Germany did something similar 10 years ago and have seen the results in recent seasons. France may have lost their way recently but they also took a decision to make big changes and reaped the rewards.

“What we are looking at achieving now is more coaches in our game and better coaches. And, hopefully, better quality players getting their opportunity in the Premier League.

“It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But we will have to be patient before the effect starts to come through.

“And for that to happen, we need strong leadership and the right people involved. The FA must back this initiative fully and keep their eyes on the ball.

“They can’t afford to be put off by any criticism that may come their way. We have to see the job through.”

Yesterday’s formal opening brought to an end a saga that had dragged on for more than a decade.

The site was bought in February, 2001, for £2m and planning permission granted four months after with a view to the centre opening two years later.

Doubts first emerged when Wilkinson left his role as the FA’s technical director in 2002 and the scheme was eventually mothballed amid the need to redirect funds to the rebuilding of Wembley in 2004.

The plans were not resurrected for another four years and after the new national stadium had been built.

Speaking yesterday at Burton, FA chairman David Bernstein echoed the comments of Wilkinson.

Bernstein said: “It is a momentous day in our history. What has been achieved here is breath-taking. It is an inspirational training base for all our national teams and for coaches an Oxbridge of football.

“We expect to get a huge amount out of this, probably first and foremost the development of more and better coaches.

“We have good coaches in this country, but we need many many more and this will be a centre driven to produce better coaching.

“It is a multi-faceted site, but it should make a huge impact on English football over a period a time.”

Long before joining the FA in the wake of his departure from Leeds in 1996, Wilkinson had been an advocate of the need for top quality training facilities to help talent blossom.

At Elland Road, he oversaw the club’s move in the mid-Nineties to the club’s current Thorp Arch training base from the Fullerton Park pitches that used to sit behind the West Stand and are now a car park.

He also overhauled United’s youth set-up, including the setting-up of an Academy in which youngsters stayed in accommodation on site.

The changes paved the way for the likes of Harry Kewell, Jonathan Woodgate, Alan Smith and Ian Harte to come through the ranks.

Wilkinson added: “In many respects, Thorp Arch was the baby of this. It was Leeds United’s answer to the Premier League and Sky coming along.

“We could see that the increased money would mean big signings coming in from abroad so if the club was going to compete then we had to produce our own youngsters,” said Wilkinson.

“What we did at Thorp Arch with the pitches, the accommodation and the schools gave us a structure to get youngsters in there and develop them.”