The plan for English football is unashamedly long-term, says former Ipswich Town chairman David Sheepshanks

David Sheepshanks at St George's Park

David Sheepshanks at St George's Park - Credit: PA

Ipswich Town have produced England’s two most successful World Cup managers in Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson, now it’s David Sheepshanks who is keeping the club’s proud association with the national side alive. The ex-Blues chairman gave STUART WATSON a tour around the St George’s Park project he heads up.

St George's Park

St George's Park - Credit: Archant

Ten minutes and 10,000 words later, David Sheepshanks draws for breath.

David Sheepshanks celebrates Ipswich Town's promotion in 2000

David Sheepshanks celebrates Ipswich Town's promotion in 2000

I have polished off my lunch in a quiet corner of the St George’s Park canteen having never once felt the need to interject. Not once did it have the feel of a well-rehearsed sales pitch.

One minute the former Ipswich Town chairman was talking from the heart about ‘too many mediocre players getting paid vast amounts of money’, the next he had swerved off topic to excitedly discuss what sort of players he’d like to see arrive at Ipswich Town this summer.

“A creative midfielder and quick winger would go a long way, don’t you think?” he enthuses. “Sorry, we’re getting side-tracked. What was the question again?”

“I can’t remember now,” I said with a smile. For a moment, it had felt less like an interview and more like a chat down the pub. This is a man who has clearly never fallen out of love with the beautiful game.

The conversation continues for another 20 minutes before David suddenly glances at his watch, pushes his own untouched plate of food away, stands up and offers another wholly unnecessary apology.

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“Blimey, is that the time? I’ve got 10 minutes with the Radio Four Today programme. Have you got everything you need? Can you find your own way out?”

Bearing in mind we had just spent two hours together and he had shown me every corner of the impressive 330-acre site in Burton, the questions should have been rhetorical. On our walk to the exit, Reading boss Nigel Adkins passes in the corridor. “Unlucky on not making the top-six,” says Sheepshanks, stopping to shake hands for the umpteenth time that day. “You finish where you deserve to finish,” he replies. “True,” says Sheepshanks. “It was the same for Mick and Ipswich. Still there’s always next year.”

One last Ipswich Town reference for the road. A pound for each of them would have comfortably paid for the petrol required for the 170-mile trip back from the beautiful New Forest setting in Staffordshire.

It’s a journey that Sheepshanks makes often, splitting his time between his home in Woodbridge, the FA headquarters in London and St George’s Park. The former Football League and FA chairman took control of the flagging National Football Centre project in 2011, it opened in 2012 and is now fully operational.

More than a decade in the making, the world class facility has cost well in excess of £100m to build. Sheepshanks is therefore rightly keen to show it off.

Among the dozens of pristine playing surfaces, there’s a replica outdoor Wembley pitch made to the exact dimensions and camber of the famous surface in north London. All are looked after with love by Alan Ferguson, the former Ipswich Town groundsman one of the first people Sheepshanks fought hard to recruit when appointed.

“‘Chairman – it’s the best pitch I’ve done,’ he shouted at me the other day,” explains Sheepshanks. “He still calls me chairman you know. Come on, let’s go on the pitch. If a gruff Scotsman tells us to get off the grass, be ready.”

David glances nervously around before inviting me to touch the grass, watching anxiously for a sufficiently impressed response. “I never get bored of this place,” he enthuses. “You just can’t beat the smell of freshly-cut pitches.”

It’s the same when we look at an indoor swimming pool, the floor of which can be lowered or raised to specific heights at the touch of a button. “Watch this!” he says. “And you see that underwater treadmill? There’s only a handful of them in the country.”

The tour takes in Wembley replica changing rooms, a state of the art medical and sports science wing, an altitude chamber, NASA-designed anti-gravity exercise bikes, a full-size indoor pitch, canteen and games room; all of which the England players used before they jetted off to Brazil for the World Cup.

“Everyone always wants to know ‘where will Wayne Rooney sleep?’ and ‘is this where the England squad will train?’” says Sheepshanks. “Obviously the elite end of things is important, but this place is about much more than that. It’s about coaching the next generation of coaches and it’s about making a difference to the grassroots game. The facilities we’ve got are incredible, but the hard work starts now. For me, this place is about the people. It’s them that will bring it to life.”

The point is perfectly demonstrated as various recognisable faces appear at every corner. Through the glass of one conference room, ex-Colchester United boss John Ward conducts a League Manager’s Association meeting. We burst through the door of the next room and see England Under-21 boss Gareth Southgate on the phone. Back in the bar area, Howard Webb and several other Premier League referees are in deep discussion as England’s visually impaired team pass through in a line, one hand on the shoulder of the man in front.

Back outside, we finally get to the million dollar question... when will we see this project really bear fruit?

“I think it’s progressive,” says Sheepshanks. “I can’t give you a time. It’s unashamedly long-term. Everything about English football is so often short-term and somebody has to stand up and say ‘no’, we’re looking to the long-term. There has to be more strategic thought.

“I hope the England team is going to benefit from this structured environment and, God willing, we’ll do really well and maybe there will be a bounce effect in Brazil. I actually have a sneaky feeling that we will do better than people are expecting, but we’ll wait and see.

“Realistically though you have to say it’s going to be eight to 10 years before the new generation of coaches are having a chance to influence the players in a different way and then those players will mature into better internationals and better Premier League players.

“The success level for me is how do we get more English qualified players in the Premier League. We shouldn’t only be thinking of that though, we should be thinking how do we get more English qualified players playing in top-flight leagues overseas just like the Spanish and Germans and whatever other nationalities are playing in our leagues. That would be a real measure of success wouldn’t it?

“That’s going to take eight, 10, 12, 14 years though. And it will be achieved by the FA and St George’s Park putting coaching at the very forefront of our agenda.

“Anyway, what’s Mick McCarthy been saying this week? You need to fill me in. Shall we go and get some lunch?”



Q: Discussions about a National Football Centre started in 2001. This has been a long time coming hasn’t it? “In many people’s opinion it’s several decades overdue given the fact that France, Germany, Spain and Holland have all got amazing national centres and we never built one.

A: “I turn that on its head and look at it rather differently and say actually we have benefitted because we have been able to go around those centres and look at best practices and unashamedly pinch the best ideas.”

Q: How much of your time at Ipswich Town influences the work you are doing here in Burton?

A: “There’s no doubt that I have been able to call upon some of my experiences at Ipswich – the rebuilding of the stadium, which of course was criticised by some, but also the experience of building the academy in the late 90s when we invested so much in that. Obviously that’s a smaller scale, but I’ve had the opportunity to see it in practice.”

Q: ‘Forty-eight years of hurt’ at major tournaments and every aspect of English football – from top to bottom – has been analysed. Everyone has an opinion on what the root cause is. What’s your view?

A: “Generalising here, and there are some notable exceptions, the last generation of English players have got away with the minimum. It’s our own fault in a way; we’ve paid much too much money. I don’t begrudge any great star their money, believe me, but we’ve paid an awful lot of money for mediocrity. That is a real issue in the game and we’ve got to be honest about it.

“We’ve had a generation of players where too many haven’t taken personal ownership. When things go wrong we’re always keen to blame somebody else – blame the coaches, blame the manager, blame the pitch, whatever it is.

“Why is that? Lots of people say to me ‘well, it’s society David’. For me it starts with the teaching and the coaching. If we’re going to really excel in English football we’re going to have to invest in a new generation of coaches.”

Q: Coaching the coaches appears to be at the heart of St George’s Park.

A: “Above and beyond everything else St George’s Park is about coaching. People bemoan the fact that we don’t develop enough leaders these days in English football. My view, if we’re brutally honest about it, is that it’s much more to do with how we teach.

“People talk about society, but the army, airforce and navy are still producing the same complement of young leaders as they were 10, 20, 30 years ago.

“That tells me that we’ve got a way to go in how we coach and how we train our footballers. It’s agreeing what your culture is, agreeing what your values are, understanding the heritage of your club or your nation. It’s setting out clearly what the disciplines are, what the rules are and saying ‘this is how we do things around here’. It’s then about living those values together.

“I think in the next 10, 20 years we’ve got to work really hard in equipping a new generation of young coaches with the teaching skills specific to each age group.”

Q: Can we have a strong Premier League global brand and a successful England national side?

A: “I don’t see that the two things are in conflict at all. We want to produce, for the Premier League and Football League clubs, a group of highly-talented, highly-trained graduates. We want the big Premier League clubs to be recruiting young coaches that have graduated from St George’s Park and them then playing English players.”

Q: Walking around the place, there seems to be a lot of influences from other sports. The Michael Johnson sprint school, motivational quotes from people like Clive Woodward on the wall. How important is it to share ideas with other sports?

A: “We mustn’t be arrogant and think we know everything in English football. We certainly don’t. Cricket, tennis, cycling, rowing and plenty more besides have all got things to teach us.”

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