Rouse on England: Heightened expectations

In a bid to close the chasm between England and its European rivals, St George’s Park, a centre of soccer excellence based in Staffordshire, was unveiled by the Football Association.

The site has been 11 years in the making, with progress being stop-start due to financial restrictions and, more tellingly, the sluggish construction of the new Wembley Stadium. Now in the lead-up to a World Cup qualifier against San Marino, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge opened the £100m facility on Tuesday.

The centre of excellence is a copycat of the methods which have bred successful international sides in Spain, France and the Netherlands. Twelve full-size training pitches will be used by the 24 different national teams, from the girl’s junior sides to Roy Hodgson’s senior squad. A 60-metre sprint track runs alongside one of the indoor pitches and there are numerous swimming pools. The Hilton Hotel on site will be used to house the men’s national team during their preparation for games.

England is the fifth best international team according to the FIFA world rankings. But they’re the FIFA world rankings, a rather confusing football science which deems Greece better than Croatia, Russia, France and Brazil. Belgium, despite having a squad littered with burgeoning young talent, are the 30th best in the world, with the likes of Mali, Ireland and Algeria ranked considerably higher.

You don’t need to look at the rankings to see why England needed to improve the development of youth players and training methods surrounding all of their teams. Despite being the “home of football,” England has won just one major tournament: the 1966 World Cup. They haven’t reached a semifinal since the European Championships in 1996, which was held on home soil.

The English Premier League is arguably the best league in the world, but it has come at a price: the lavishly paid imports that dominate the division restrict homegrown players from making an impact at the highest level. When Sergio Agüero scored his injury time winner to clinch the title for Manchester City in May, his side had just two Englishmen on the pitch. It was a similar story for Chelsea when they overcame Bayern Munich on penalties to win the Champions’ League.

The shortening supply of talent coming from England has led to young players being rushed into the national side too early, such as Theo Walcott, and a continuing reliance on players whose talents were diminishing (David James and John Terry) or questionable (Stewart Downing and Robert Green).

The first-teamers have had no real competition for years. Look at Hodgson’s squad now: Joe Hart is one of the best goalkeepers in the world but the backup, Fraser Forster and John Ruddy, are incomparable to the riches the other top international sides boast in that position.

St George’s Park is supposed to mark a much brighter future for English football. It will be the base on anything to do with the national sides, also housing The League Managers’ Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association.

David Sheepshanks, chairman of the new state-of-the-art complex, told the BBC that investing in coaches – not just the players – will allow them to overtake the achievements of the centres in France and Spain, leading him to promise that “from 2020 onwards we will have winning England teams.”

Big words, but there is only one England team that dominates its nation’s media though: the men’s senior side. This is where the demanding public will hope Sheepshanks is true to his word and that there may be a product of the plush St George’s Park on the pitch as soon as Russia 2018.

That may be wishful thinking.

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