OP-ED: ST GEORGE'S PARK AND DISABILITY FOOTBALL

29 Nov 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

St. George’s Park is widely known as the iconic home of English football, thanks in part to England reaching the UEFA EURO’s Final this summer at Wembley. The extended run in the competition gave anyone outside the Staffordshire bubble a rare insight into the camp, with its hot yoga pod and unicorn pool float creating iconic moments in an almost perfect summer on the pitch for the men’s team.

However, off the back of The FA’s recent ‘Football Your Way’ launch which outlines the organisation’s three-year plan to develop, raise awareness of and participation in Disability Football, St. George’s Park General Manager Holly Murdoch reflects there’s much more to the venue which underpins all national teams that call it home. 

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I have worked at St. George’s Park since it first opened its doors in 2012. At its inception, the facility was created to be the National Football Centre and over nine years it has naturally grown and evolved, establishing a reputation as a world-class training and rehabilitation base. Currently home to all England teams, the site is also the FA’s central education resource England Football Learning.

As one of the original staff here, it has been amazing to see the facilities transform to what we have now and I’m proud of what we offer elite teams both on and off the pitch. We have 14 of the very best training pitches in the world, including a replica of the Wembley playing surface and several rehabilitation and sports science suites, offering cutting-edge technology and a real 360-provision of player care to aid preparation ahead of international matches and tournaments.

The elite players spending time here require the highest-level facilities to support their careers. Some have been with us since the doors opened as part of The FA’s talent pathway and have developed alongside the site over years, others only recently arriving at St. George’s Park for the first time. What we want all players to experience, regardless of the number of call-ups, is the ethos of a culture-first venue. Everything has been created to establish connection and team-dynamics, driving excellence, and establishing winning teams.

It's this foundation that helps us support The FA’s Football Your Way strategy. Our best-in-class facilities support the country’s elite para footballers when they’re with us for training camps and competitive matches, and those same facilities will create opportunities for more players as part of the commitment to develop and increase disability football in the coming years - at all levels and all formats.

We recently hosted the England Men’s Cerebral Palsy and England Men’s Blind teams for training camps, and the Blind team will return, playing a competitive international against their German counterparts at the end of November. I think it’s a strength of the venue and culture that the facilities are adapted specifically for our para team’s use. The layout of the pitches, meeting and technical spaces allow players independence, and are a significant component of the site’s efficacy. Ensuring any elite player can fine tune their performance, in an inspirational setting.

The England Blind Team uses the Tony Larkin pitch, which is one of only two blind pitches in the UK. It has raised hoardings around the perimeter of the pitch to keep the ball on the playing surface, and to give players positional guidance. It’s also set within a cage and away from the touchlines to allow a quiet environment without spectator sound. However, all other England teams including Cerebral Palsy, Partially Sighted, Deaf, Senior Men’s and Women’s use the same pitches and gym space.

As well as helping drive the Football Your Way strategy and being a year-round base for England international teams, we were proud to host the 2015 Cerebral Palsy World Cup, a 15-nation tournament that was not only the biggest disability football tournament ever to be held in the UK, but a qualification mechanism for the 2016 Paralympic Games. Additionally, The FA Disability Cup is held at St. George’s Park annually, giving players with impairment-specific football a national competition, raising the profile of the sport to the point of the 2021 finals being broadcast live on BT Sport.

The technical teams for all our England squads are in the same space, and there is very much an open-door policy with shared knowledge and experience which is inspiring to see and rightly conveys the ethos of everyone being together. We have three big countdown clocks on the walls counting down to the 2022 UEFA Women’s EUROs, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the IFCPF 2022 Cerebral Palsy World Cup. All three tournaments have equal prominence. 

The Football Your Way plan outlines The FA’s commitment to drive awareness and increase participation in para sport, and it’s fantastic to see the plan’s pledge to establish more para teams both recreationally and competitively. 

It’s taken time for the space here to evolve, and we have a very committed team to ensure it will continue to adapt and change to ensure we are providing pathway and facilities to support the growth of para football at an elite level.