This is the untold story of England’s redemption – from laughing stock to European heavyweights
By Sam Cunningham
Howard Wilkinson was sacked as Leeds United manager on 9 September 1996, and it would set in motion a chain of events that would lead to England reaching their first European Championship final, a quarter of a century later.
Back then, England still had a particularly old-fashioned approach to football. Former managers and coaches can still remember finding it amusing when foreign clubs or other countries visited and would have two doctors waiting to run onto the pitch to treat players, and a masseur in their ranks. They would think they were softies; this was football, English players charged around the pitch and drank six pints afterwards.
But a few months after Wilkinson left Leeds, the Football Association appointed him as technical director and his ideas still permeate England’s success, years later.
He began the project that would become St George’s Park, the national team’s hub of world-class facilities that they were so badly lacking.
At the time, there was no joined-up thinking in academy football. One club did it one way, the next another. There was an element of secrecy, nobody wanted to share ideas.
It required an entire cultural shift and many say Wilkinson was crucial in that. He created and wrote the blueprint that became the modern academy system, named the Charter for Quality and published in 1997.
Now, while putting their own stamp on things, clubs largely all work in the same fundamental way. Academy managers meet at St George’s Park three times a year and discuss ideas. These days, club managers last so little time that they do not have an input into the academy other than trying to introduce its products into the first team.
As a result, when the players from all age groups meet up with England they slot right in and do not have to be taught a different way of training and playing.
Gareth Southgate is really the first England coach to benefit from this.
Wilkinson, a former teacher, is considered a disciple of coaching and took the first group of aspiring coaches through their Uefa badges in 1998. Alan Smith, the former Crystal Palace manager and Fulham’s first academy director, was part of that group and remembers visiting Bayern Munich to see how they operated. “It was clear we were so far behind in our system and structure,” Smith says. “We had no sharing of ideas, everyone did their own thing.”
There was also no true centre of excellence, no central focus point bringing together all the strands of what the England team really is: not just the manager and first-team squad, but the hundreds of staff and youth players who feed into it.
The FA had fallen unforgivably behind, mainly due to the political nature of the organisation that made change slow and difficult.
Italy’s Il Centro Tecnico Federale di Coverciano, based in Florence, had been open since 1958. France had Clairefontaine, 30 miles outside Paris, that they built in 1988. In 1996, the Dutch launched the KNVB Academy, in Zeist, focusing on coaches. The Germans were a little later, responding to disappointment in Euro 2000 by pumping money into youth and coach development and opening scores of centres of excellence.
St George’s Park was Wilkinson’s “baby”, Smith says, even though he has never gone to great lengths to claim credit for it. Before then, England were all over the place.
The main youth training centre, Lilleshall, was opened in 1984 but by the 90s was staggeringly outdated. “It was archaic,” one former academy director says. “It was like going to prison for two weeks. It put you off going back.”
Club academies were superseding Lilleshall so England teams spread everywhere and this continued until St George’s Park opened in 2012.
The women’s team could be in Walsall, the under-16s in Burton, the 19s in Ipswich, the 21s in Loughborough. Coaches would be based in Wembley, sat in offices next to one of the world’s best pitches but with no players to train on it. The first team stayed at The Grove, in Watford, on matchdays and often trained at Arsenal’s London Colney centre.
“It was splintered,” one former FA staff member says. “No one had an anchor, no one had a base.”
Initially convinced by Wilkinson’s dreams, the FA bought 330 acres of east Staffordshire national forest for £2 million in 2001. A year later Wilkinson presented an architect’s model of what St George’s Park would look like. But as costs of the new Wembley rose and the opening was repeatedly delayed, St George’s Park had to be postponed until the stadium was finished. There would be an 11-year wait before it opened and it almost did not happen: the idea was delayed, then canned, then the decision to cancel it delayed, then batted around some more.
Meanwhile, English coaches stalled. During the early 2000s, as part of Denmark’s coach development programme they would send groups of coaches to different countries to learn from their methods. One English coach who hosted a cohort recalls 12 Danes arriving at their training ground, handing over presents as gifts of thanks, then getting down to business only to discover the Danes were far more advanced. “They would ask where the sports scientists and analysis departments were,” the coach says. “We didn’t have any. It was quite embarrassing.”
All that changed at the start of the 2010s. As the academy system continued to improve, Southgate was appointed as the FA’s new head of elite development.
It was here that he grew an extensive network across football, could be found in a high-vis jacket and hard hat having input at St George’s Park as construction finally got underway and was a key figure in revolutionising how children played: reducing the sizes of pitches, the numbers of players on teams, the goalframes.
“He’s got an aura about him, but not in a classically cliched way,” Scott Field, head of media relations at the FA from 2009-16 and who witnessed Southgate’s work first-hand, says. “He’s played at the highest level, but he’s statesmanlike, he listens as much as talks. All these things go a long way. He’s got great empathy.
“You can well see how he was able to go around the country and take an argument forward to say, ‘Look if we’re going to develop, we’ve got to be better than putting six-year-old kids in full-sized goals and here’s why’. It was logical and made sense, but he was human as well. He wasn’t the only one who achieved this, there were others. Gareth was deeply embedded in what the FA were trying to achieve. That was critical in developing a generation of young people.”
Two things came together a year later. St George’s Park finally opened – a decade after Wilkinson had left – and Dan Ashworth was employed as director of elite development.
A £6m government grant meant the nation was heavily invested in the project, but when it was officially opened by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, St George’s Park chief executive David Sheepshanks urged patience. “What you see now is just the beginning,” he said. “I cannot emphasise strongly enough that St George’s Park is an investment for the long term, the full benefits of which should not be expected to be recognised for a decade or more.
“It’s a place to develop leadership qualities and team work, to grow a culture of winning, for the long term, an ethos of continuous learning and development, the never-ending pursuit of personal bests. Just as France, Spain and Germany have done, we’re investing in the number and quality of coaches.”
Sheepshanks is credited with getting the project over the line, securing the deal with Hilton to build the plush hotel and getting funding approved by the FA Council. It cost over £100m. “That was a big moment,” someone familiar with the situation says. “This is the FA that couldn’t agree on anything.”
Ashworth arrived from West Bromwich Albion, where he is given kudos for building their academy from scratch. He did a similar thing at St George’s Park, where he is one of the creators of the “England DNA”, creating an elite group of coaches, medical staff, analysis teams. If St George’s Park pulled all the strands of England together, Ashworth tied them into a neat bow.
“Today I’m going to set the whole of English football two targets, the first is for the England team to reach at least the semi-finals of the European Championship in 2020 and the second is for us to win the World Cup in 2022,” Greg Dyke said in his first speech as FA chairman.
It was a statement that would be derided often during the next three years as England exited the 2014 World Cup in the group stage and were knocked out of Euro 2016 by Iceland in the last 16. So was the idea to have a digital clock counting down to Qatar 2022 installed in the coaches’ office at St George’s Park.
The clock was the idea of performance specialist Dave Reddin, who arrived in 2014 from the British Olympic Association, where two clocks counting down to the summer and winter Games are the first thing you see when you enter the reception.
“Dave Reddin brought in a lot of ideas from other sports,” Dyke says. “What they really said to us was you haven’t got a professional enough setup here, you need all sorts of extra people. Dave Reddin came up with a lot of that, with Dan Ashworth. What we did was listen.
“He gave a presentation to the board, and my job was to find the money. That wasn’t very popular because it meant some people lost their job. We restructured the place but we did save money. A lot of that went on the English setup. We looked at different things we could do.
“It was quite expensive. My job was to sort out the FA and make sure there was enough money to do what they wanted to do. It was several million pounds per year to pay for additional staff.”
Dyke’s successor, Greg Clarke, took over in 2016 and at his first engagement described the countdown clock as “ridiculous”.
Clarke wanted the clock taken down, but it was saved by Sam Allardyce, one of the major achievements during a 67-day tenure ended by a Daily Telegraph exposé.
Southgate, by then the England Under-21s manager, turned down the main job before Allardyce took it, but was offered it again and changed his mind.
In much the same way St George’s Park revolutionised the England setup, Southgate has changed the role of England manager from part-timer picking up a golden payday, to a 365-day-a-year obsession.
One of his many strengths, his staff say, is that he has, alongside assistant Steve Holland, continued to improve relationships with clubs started by Wilkinson 25 years before. When not involved with the first team or public duties, Southgate visits academies, shares a coffee with directors and coaches, watches training, discusses the prospects of future players.It is clearly no fluke England have finally reached a European Championship final. They now have 90 minutes, plus potentially extra time and penalties, against Italy to reward 25 years’ work with one of the ultimate prizes in football.