St George's Park and the tech-savvy future of the FA's football coaching schools

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st-georges-park-top.jpgWhile all eyes are on the 2012 Olympics as the nation’s favoured sporting occasion for this year, the summer also offers the Euro 2012 international football tournament. After a string of disappointing performances at the top-flight of football for the England senior’s squad, blame often falls at the feet of the FA, and the coaching staff, as ex-England manager Fabio Capello’s recent departure will attest to.

Looking to strengthen England’s coaching prospects from the ground up, and looking for long-term fixes rather short-term ones, the FA are building the impressive 330-acre National Football Centre (NFC) at St George’s Park, Burton-upon-Trent.

It’s a massive undertaking that encompasses building leading football training facilities (with 12 pitches, including two full-size recreations of the Wembley Stadium pitch, both outdoors and indoors) and creating two world-class hotels for accommodating players, coaching staff and eventually the public too.

“The project started around and got the green-light in November 2010. We first cut the ground here in February and we’re on target for our summer deadline. It’s gone very well so far, it’s been a smooth ride,” says the FA’s director of Digital & Information Technology, Rob Ray.

“It’s all about delivering better coaches for better football, it’s not a finishing school for elite players. This is about moulding elite coaches. It’s very much a long-term strategy.”

The improvements in coaching training will come from the implementation of advanced technology across the site. With a £100 million budget, a generous £3 million has been set aside for technology.

st-georges-park-mid.jpg23 touchscreens will be installed in key training locations across the site (partners for the touchscreens have been confirmed, but have not been announced yet), while pitch-side cameras will capture training sessions from many angles, streamed instantly to locations both on and off site. Players will be outfitted with GPS modules to track their work rate, as well as biometric monitoring equipment, and coaches will have access to the same touchscreen software regularly used by the likes of Andy Gray and Gareth Southgate, with 50 terrabytes of storage set aside for video recordings of training sessions.

“We’re also expecting coaches to take a tablet to training sessions,” says Ray, hinting at the iPad being the FA’s slate of choice.

“The coaches definitely have a preference and it’s a very good device but then we see them go ‘Oops!’ and drop them. We have to look at technologies that are as robust as possible, but we have a number of iPads in-play now, and our coaches like them.”

Solid web infrastructure is also a key goal of the site:

“There’s a lot of information technology going into the whole site. BT are a key provider and key supplier of our technology here,” said Ray.

Indeed telecommunications support is vital for the site. St George’s Park will be linked with Wembley Stadium and other international sites via high-speed broadband provided by BT. This will allow for massive amounts of data to be transferred between coaches across sites (particularly useful considering the amount of pitch-side video capture expected to be done on site), as well as talks from leading international coaches across the globe via teleconferencing in one of the site’s many conference and lecture rooms.

This isn’t the implementation of technology just for the sake of bragging rights though, and Ray is being sensible about what installations will actually be beneficial to staff. “We don’t need touch everywhere,” says Ray for example, when questioned about the distribution of touchscreens across the site. Frank Lampard won’t be sitting on an Android-powered toilet, for instance.

st-georges-park-low.jpgImproving sports science literacy among the England support staff is also a major goal of the site, and advanced facilities will include a minor procedures room, a hydrotherapy pool and even a velocity-sensitive running track that can measure when a player is putting more weight and strain on one leg than the other.

“We’re aiming to reach the FIFA F-Marc standard; there are only ten facilities around the world that can claim that at the moment, and we’re going to be the eleventh,” beams Ray.

Training world class coaches is not an overnight task, though those looking for an overnight stay at St George’s Park will be well catered for.

“We have a partner in Hilton Hotels, who are providing 128 beds in the Hilton wing, and 86 beds in the Hampton wing,” says Ray.

“It’s the first time they’ve combined two different star-rated hotels on one site. We have 24 England teams, and they’ll all train here, and need accommodation as well.”

The hotels, and select areas of the site, will be open to the public, and Ray is keen to stress that it’s very much a business proposition too. As well as generating revenue from public visitors, St George’s Park is also offering the use of its facilities to travelling international teams.

“We’re close to Birmingham and Manchester, so who are our other customers? I’d say Real Madrid. Barcelona. They can be here bracing themselves for a match against Manchester City, United. Any of the European teams, or even members of other sports, will want to train here,” suggests Ray.

In fact, lots of different sports are being considered for facilities on the site:

“Tennis, badminton, netball; we’re still figuring out the colour combinations for pitch lines,” says Ray. “But this will become a great facility for many sports.”

But the focus, naturally, will remain on the England stars, both new and old, says Ray:

“Part of the vision, and Stuart Pearce (current manager of the England national under-21 teamed.) would articulate this better than I would, is to see the England senior teams, under 21s, under 17s and the women’s teams training at the same time on site. Getting all those people together and creating a sense of being one united England team under the 24 individual banners will be greatly beneficial to players and managers alike.”

Work on St George’s Park is expected to be completed by the summer. For more information on St George’s Park, click here.

Gerald Lynch
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