The success of England's men's and women's teams in recent years has been impressive. While Sarina Weigman's Lionesses brought home England's first trophy since 1966 last year, Gareth Southgate's team has also repeatedly sparked excitement amongst England fans of all ages and backgrounds, developing a newfound level of connection with the Three Lions' young, hungry, talented squad. A factor that played a huge part in fostering this atmosphere during the EURO 2020 run was the development of the Inside Access series, which showed behind-the-scenes footage of England's players training, socialising, and playing games. Giving fans exclusive access to the squad's daily activities had a big impact, and crucially, those scenes relied on the important role of one location: St. George's Park.
St. George's Park is the English Football Association (FA)'s National Football Centre (NFC), the main hub of the English international football set-up. In this article, part of our series on the World's Best Training Grounds, we'll be giving you a comprehensive guide to the location, facilities, size, and dimensions of St. George's Park, the history of the site, and the vital role it plays within the English FA's long-term vision. We'll explore any recent developments that have been made to the training centre, and we'll also look to the future and examine the importance of the centre going forward.
St. George's Park is an integral part of the picture for English international football, from the senior men's and women's teams right down to the junior sides dreaming of making it to the top. By the end of this article, you'll have a great idea of exactly what goes on at St George's Park to fuel the kind of international success that saw the Lionesses winning the Euros last summer.
Nestled in the Staffordshire countryside, around a 20-minute drive from the nearby town of Burton-upon-Trent, St. George's Park is located in a scenic rural spot. The site was originally part of Needwood Forest, but was developed into hunting grounds by the Berkeley family in the 13th century, before being passed into the hands of the royal family for a number of years. In the 1700s, the grounds became private once more, with the Bass family acquiring the estate during the Victorian period and embarking on some major redevelopment. Eventually, when Sir William Bass died in 1952, the estate was sold and its country house demolished.
It wasn't until the 1990s that plans for a national football centre started being drawn up, with the FA's technical director Howard Wilkinson taking inspiration from the French site of Clairefontaine (near Paris), a centre that had been instrumental in building the famous Les Bleus sides of 1998 and 2000. Wilkinson wanted to replicate the project with England, creating a national base to develop the next generation of senior internationals. The St. George's Park site was soon highlighted as a potential location, and in 2001 the FA acquired the grounds for £2m, buying it from the Forte Hotels division of Granada Leisure plc.
Before this point, the FA had two major facilities in use for player development: Lilleshall Hall, a Shropshire-based site that provided coaching for young England players, but had been superseded in quality by various professional clubs, and Bisham Abbey, a multi-sport complex in Berkshire that the England senior team trained at before matchdays (used by various other sports teams). Neither of these were ideal, and the FA felt it was important that they created a purpose-built, state-of-the-art complex for football, with a focus on high performance and developing elite level players.
However, it wasn't as simple as acquiring the site and getting to work — it took a long time for the project to actually be realised. After Chief Executive Adam Crozier left the FA, the organisation reviewed plans for St. Georges Park in 2002, and because of the costs of building the new Wembley Stadium, it became clear that limited funds were available for the training centre project (an additional £100m had to be forked up for Wembley, while the costs of the national football centre were revised as at least £80m). As a result, the project deadline was relaxed, and in 2003, the decision was taken to mothball the project. Some didn't see the point of continuing with the idea; however, a proposal to drop the build was delayed repeatedly. Pitches had been laid, but major construction work had not started, and a sale was considered. The NFC idea was under threat.
It wasn't until 2008 that the plans were relaunched. Trevor Brooking, an England legend and former Director of Football Development at the FA, stated that without a dedicated national training centre, "the England coach's job will get that much harder", assuring that the project would be completed by 2010. In fairness, he wasn't far off — despite all the much-criticised delay (in 2010, football journalist Sam Wallace wrote that "the problem for the FA is that as long as it sits here unfinished, Burton is a stick which the FA's critics use to beat it"), St. George's Park was eventually completed. It was officially opened by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on 9 October 2012.
The National Football Centre at St George's Park sits on a whopping 330-acre site, making it by far the largest football training facility in the country. The land was acquired for £2m in 2001, but a huge amount of additional cash has been funnelled into the project during the two decades since, in order to ensure that high standards are achieved across the board. In total, around £105m has been spent on building St. George's Park. The centre's purpose is to be the base for all the English FA's coaching and development work, as well as the training and preparation ground for all 23 of England's national football teams, including disabled teams, futsal, and of course the Men's Senior and Women's Senior teams, plus the U-21, U-20, U19, and U-17s.
There are 14 elite outdoor pitches on the site, including an exact replica of the Wembley surface (lots of professional clubs have similar replica pitches at their training grounds, including Arsenal's London Colney site). Some of these pitches are smaller to facilitate the work of youth teams, whilst there's also a full-sized indoor 3G pitch and a futsal arena, meaning that each individual team within the England international set-up is covered.
Elsewhere, state-of-the-art performance and recovery facilities back up the playing surfaces to help provide an all-encompassing training and rehabilitation hub. The Red Box-designed, Bowmer + Kirkland-built site's indoor area also contains hydrotherapy suites, biomechanics and training gyms, video analysis facilities, suites for education and coaching, and elite-level medical and sport science facilities. For overnight stays, there's a 228 bedroom Hilton hotel that caters for individuals, groups, and team bookings, as well as having capacity for major sporting or business conferences and banquets.
Source: The FA
St. George's Park is also the home of England Football Learning, offering a range of coaching and medical courses to students on site. Anyone interested in becoming a football coach in the UK is likely to come across England Football Learning and their educational resources at some point. According to Lucy Pearson, Head of FA Education: "We run a lot of courses from the site. But it's really around high performance and how do we give the players the best opportunity to win tournaments?"
What's more, there's also an Outdoor Leadership Centre for business and sport on site, which provides a specialist setting for developing outstanding teams and leaders. And the proof's in the pudding in terms of the results provided by St. George's Park's facilities; according to Euro-winning women's coach, "It is absolutely the best venue I've ever seen", while men's boss Gareth Southgate celebrated the site's recent tenth anniversary by stating: "It's been amazing to see all the ideas and forethought come to life". A "football for all" ethos guides everything at St. George's, with England's Blind and Deaf teams playing there, and Head of Para Performance Catherine Gilby insisting "It's that hub, it's that feel of being part of not just the Para football programme but a bigger England team" that makes this unified national space so important.
The chairman who helped deliver the NFC project, David Sheepshanks, once said: "Our aim is to make St. George's Park a sporting destination of choice for coaches, players, administrators and officials." It's fair to say that those responsible for the site have achieved this aim.
The National Football Centre's high level of quality is evidenced by the fact that it has been used for years by England's most technically proficient professional footballers, and has also been hired by the England national rugby team, and European clubs such as AS Monaco, Galatasaray, and Steaua Bucharest for training purposes. The fact that it was also chosen to host five group stages matches during the European Under-17 Championships in 2018 only reinforces its pedigree as a sporting facility.
Without a doubt, St. George's Park is one of the best international training centres in the world. Of course, there are a number of other seriously impressive facilities; France's Clairefontaine centre, described as a "dream factory" by many, has produced unbelievable talents such as Kylian Mbappe, Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, and more. Meanwhile, Spain's national training and preparation site La Ciudad del Futbol also boasts some impressive features. Ultimately, across the footballing world professionals are well aware of the importance of giving players the best preparation, the best strength and conditioning, and the best medical and sport science advice possible — and just because national centres aren't always hosting senior players on a day-to-day basis doesn't mean they're not set up to deliver all these things too.
Given how recently St. George's Park was built, it's understandable that everyone at the FA seems pretty pleased with how it is right now. Its vast array of grass and indoor pitches, the enormous hotel and hospitality facilities on site, the medical and sports science faculties — this place has got everything needed to support and spark the next generation of talent in England, and since its official opening in 2012, it's already seen some huge talents graduate and go on to light up the world stage. The likes of Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, and Trent Alexander-Arnold (to name a few) have benefited from the enhanced support available at England's National Football Centre, and it's exciting to consider who else may hone their talents at the Staffordshire site in the years to come.
Interested in finding more about some of the state-of-the-art training facilities being used across England by the Premier League's best players? To read about arguably the best of the lot, check out our guide to Manchester City's training centre, the Etihad Campus.