Situated on over 330 acres in the middle of the country, St. George’s Park has long been the hub of English football, but the challenge for this summer’s Euros — Stream LIVE on ESPN, ESPN+ all summer long (U.S.) — is to make it feel like home.
England have varied their approach to setting up base camps for tournaments in recent years, from the relative seclusion of Repino in Russia three years ago, to the Fort Knox-style security of Rustenburg in South Africa at the 2010 World Cup or the city-centre base in Krakow, Poland, at Euro 2012. Yet this time, with all three group games at Wembley, they will be able to use their regular venue, a sprawling site deep in the Derbyshire countryside, opened in 2012 at a cost of $150 million (£105m), with the aim of centralising the development of England teams at all levels and producing the next generation of coaches.
Of the 13 outdoor pitches available, it will be on Pitch 6, named the Sir Bobby Charlton Pitch, where Gareth Southgate will aim to mastermind England European Championships success. It’s the usual space the men’s national team train on at SGP, and an exact replica of Wembley’s Desso GrassMaster surface. (Cost: which with undersoil heating included, up to $1.5m/£1m.)
There are two such pitches at SGP — the adjacent Pitch 5 is the other — and England will use both of them together for the first time during Euro 2020. Each one mirrors Wembley’s 345 feet by 225 feet (105m by 68m) dimensions, and they’re even cut with the same pitch pattern to reproduce conditions as accurately as possible. Made with a base of sand, gravel and soil, 20 million fibres are then stitched into the surface, each two centimetres apart.
“The expectation levels are the highest you could possibly imagine,” SGP head groundsman Andy Gray told ESPN.
“We have regular conversations with Karl Stanley, the head groundsman at Wembley, leading up and during the tournament. Grass length, pitch firmness: they’re the two main ones we can change daily. When the players go from one [pitch] to another, it feels the same under a player’s feet, and their bodies react in the same way to it. They are more confident in their own minds then when they step out at Wembley.”
That confidence could be a hugely significant factor. All three of England’s Group D matches will take place at Wembley and should they finish top over Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic, they would only play one game away from London all the way to the final.
Euro 2020 is undoubtedly the closest thing England will have to a home tournament without actually staging the entire competition, and various adaptations have been made at SGP to help Southgate and his players maximise the opportunity.
Fresh messaging has been put in place to encourage the right mindset, a similar tool to one used in Russia that saw Southgate leave hand-written notes in each player’s hotel room. SGP also houses a 228-bedroom, four-star hotel, with England having exclusive use of the entire site.
New barbecue spaces have been created, with outdoor eating encouraged as a COVID-safe method of socialising. A basketball court is also new, added alongside a number of longstanding team-building activities at the Outdoor Leadership Centre, which include a 40ft climbing tower, archery, laser combat and a 90-seater lecture theatre that can double as a cinema.
England’s personal chef, Omar Meziane, has catered for individual players in the past and worked with clubs including Fulham and Chelsea. He will be responsible for the players’ nutritional needs, having been promoted to the senior setup after cooking for the England Under-20’s during their triumphant 2017 World Cup campaign. This will be his second tournament with Southgate’s side after Russia and during lockdown he even created his own takeaway service, delivering his food to players’ houses.
Southgate was widely praised for striking the right balance of keeping players engaged and relaxed in Repino, Russia, and SGP’s general manager Holly Murdoch revealed the wide-open spaces have made the venue particularly popular during the pandemic.
“It was the busiest August pre-season ever last year: we accommodated more different sports than we may have done in a traditional year because so many teams weren’t able to travel,” she told ESPN. “There were fewer people on site because of [the pandemic], but more teams around.”
There have been more than 350 professional team stays at SGP; backroom teams from various clubs and disciplines regularly visit to glean and share ideas, with SGP recently reciprocating visits from Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham among others. SGP also hosted the United Soccer League’s Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2016 and, last month, staged an International Rugby 7s tournament in which the Great Britain and USA teams prepped for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
Although it ostensibly provides a base for England’s 28 teams, one of SGP’s main goals was to improve the standard of coaching across the country in an effort to ultimately increase the number of homegrown players at the upper levels of the game.
“It provided a physical base and home for that team where we could not only accommodate our workforce, but also deliver our courses,” said Murdoch, with more than 5,000 people attending a national course at SGP. Prior to St George’s, those courses were being delivered around the country in hotels and using football pitches that were adjacent. Having a place specifically built with the right technology and the right surfaces, with big viewing towers so they could take content and watch it back, was really important.”
There are further changes that the England players will see for the first time as they settle in this week ahead of their first game, against Croatia, on June 13. (Stream the Euros LIVE on ESPN+ all summer long.) A new cryotherapy unit is now in place in addition to a modified physiotherapy area, more tailored to the squad’s particular needs.
“There are private physio areas, but also now rooms where a number of players can come in together for treatment, there’s space for stretching, Pilates, etc,” Murdoch said. “Less of the traditional strength and conditioning, more of the recovery aspects of what the team do.”
A gatehouse located at the front of the park will act as a base for the 24-hour security team, aiming to give England peace of mind as well as the ideal platform to attack the finals.
Depending on how their tournament goes, perhaps Pitch 5 will be renamed after Southgate or one of his 26-man squad after this summer.