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Behind the scenes: Ireland set up camp at £105m English FA headquarters

We took a look around the facilities where Joe Schmidt and his players will train this week.

Murray Kinsella reports from St. George’s Park

AFTER SPENDING THE weekend in Cardiff for their World Cup opener against Canada, Ireland set up camp near Burton-on-Trent in England on Sunday evening.

Their base for the bulk of the week leading up to this Sunday’s meeting with Romania is St. George’s Park, a world-class training centre built by the English Football Association at a cost of £105 million.

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Joe Schmidt’s men will benefit from the state-of-the-art facilities at St. George’s Park as their World Cup campaign moves up a gear, with their own dedicated and expertly manicured training pitch, luxurious on-site accommodation and the various gym, recovery and rehabilitation areas they require.

Perhaps as important is the tranquility of St. George’s Park, buried deep in the Staffordshire countryside, away from the spotlight of the World Cup.

Maize Maze Community Event1 Source: Tony Marshall - The FA

Schmidt values time dedicated to training and analysis, and this training base will allow Ireland to focus on both.

Interestingly, Ireland’s departure on Friday will be swiftly followed by the arrival of potential quarter-final opponents Argentina for a week-long stay.

Pitches

Set on a 330-acre site around 15 minutes drive from Burton-on-Trent, St. George’s Park is home to no less than 13 world-class pitches.

The fact that this is the National Football Centre means the vast majority of those are for marked out for football, but Ireland have a particularly special surface of their own for the week.

Paul O'Connell Paul O'Connell limbers up on Ireland's pitch. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There are natural grass, fibre sand and hybrid pitches at St. George’s Park, with Ireland’s one falling into the final category. Schmidt’s men are training on a SISGRASS surface this week, designed and installed by SIS Pitches, who have a Dublin office.

Essentially the surface is a mixture of real grass and synthetic materials, meaning weather will have no impact on it.

Schmidt’s men will also benefit from working with a dedicated pitch caretaker for the week, his job being to ensure that the surface is as similar to Wembley’s (where Ireland play on Sunday) as possible.

A view of training Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There are two Desso GrassMaster pitches – the same as the Aviva Stadium in Dublin – in St. George’s Park, with one of those in particular being the pride and joy of the English FA.

The surfaces and dimensions of both Desso pitches are 100% identical to the one at Wembley, but only the senior men’s England football team are allowed set foot on the main centrepiece pitch.

Sean O'Brien Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There is also the extremely useful addition of an indoor 3G pitch next door to the strength and conditioning facilities.

Although it’s indoor, the arena has an outdoor feel to it with vents and large windows along either side of the hanger allowing light and a natural flow of air in.

Indoor

However, special heating equipment on the roof means freezing temperatures in winter can be negated.

As with the outdoor pitches, there are elevated positions for video analysts to set up for the recording of training sessions or games.

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The outdoor facilities in that regard are movable towers that allow teams to be videoed from above.

One of the FA’s aims in building St. George’s Park was that it would not be a cost to run long-term. The idea is that paid-for visits from teams aside from the FA’s own 24 national teams will eventually earn back the £105m they spent on building it and the cost of running the base.

Ireland are one example of that, although football teams are far more frequent visitors. Barcelona, Chelsea, Monaco, and a wide range of Premier League teams have all stayed in St. George’s Park in the last three years.

Boots

On the day The42 toured the facilities, Burnley were training there, as is a regular feature of their schedule. Local professional side Burton Albion are permanently based there for their training.

St. George’s Park runs at close to 100% for pitch occupancy throughout the year, although the staff stress that that doesn’t mean teams are constantly on the pitches. The surfaces are treated with what appears to be genuine affection, meaning they are never overworked and inspected daily.

While the glamorous professional sides make up much of the business, St. George’s Park does rent one of its pitches out to various local community teams every evening, something they feel is important too.

Epicentre

The actual Football Centre is housed in the middle of St. George’s Park, with 200 FA staff now working from there daily rather than in the former base in London. Employees refer to the centre as the ’access control’ of the association.

There are three separate gyms in the centre, all three of them run by Perform, a team of sports and exercise medicine physicians, nutritionists, exercise physiologists, podiatrists, physiotherapists and allied health practitioners.

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The strength and conditioning gym will be of most relevance to Ireland this week, with their programme taking advantage of the spaciousness of the gym to train in big groups.

Different visiting teams make different requests to the staff for what they need in the gym. Ireland asked for additional weights as “they lift a lot more than footballers.”

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Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and the rest of the squad will bend some iron in this exceptional gym throughout the week.

With several individual lifting platforms and further space for the Olympic lifts, as well as an area with benches and dumbbells, Ireland will be well covered.

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St. George’s Park contains lots of standard gym equipment, but they also house state-of-the-art hardware for improving balance and much more. Any request a visiting team makes can be accommodated.

“I hated every minute of training, but I said ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’,” reads one Muhammed Ali quote in large lettering across the main wall of the gym.

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Along with the heavier weights, the S&C gym also includes various tools for core workouts and a small prehabilitation area.

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There are also standard stationary bikes and rowing machines, which allow the players to warm up before lifting.

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Human Performance Lab

St. George’s Park has a dedicated Rehabilitation Gym for injured players on the comeback trail, with some clubs even sending those on their sicklists for a period of residential rehab.

Players stay on site for what can be weeks at a time, working hard through multiple daily sessions to rehab their injuries. Of even more interest is the Human Performance Lab, a relatively small room that contains a whole lot of technology.

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In this area, the Perform team welcome new visitors to the centre and carry out a wide range of physical tests, looking at strength, running mechanics, blood markers, sweat, hydration levels and more.

Force platforms allow them to test power, as well as studying any imbalances an athlete might possess, be they from fatigue, injury or even long-term asymmetries in their body.

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The chamber above allows testing or cardio sessions in either altitude or extreme heat, again providing the HP team with even more information and markers for each athlete who visits.

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The much-dreaded Wattbikes are present too for analysis of athletes’ power output in short and longer bursts.

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The piece of equipment that most drew our attention in the Human Performance Lab was the Batak Pro, which is used to test and improve reaction speed, hand-eye co-ordination and mental stamina.

Essentially, it involves reacting to 12 different buttons, which light up one at a time in a completely random pattern. The athlete has to react by pushing the button, that in turn lighting up the next one.

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The leaderboard for the ‘Batak Challenge’ at St. George’s Park is currently headed up by Perform employee Stephen Brown, who managed to knock out a remarkable 139 buttons during the 60 seconds involved in the test.

Formula One driver Will Stevens is second, while footballers Didier Drogba, Falcao, and David Jones also performed very well.

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Less impressive were ex-England hooker Brian Moore, former Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy and the retired tennis player Greg Rusedski. Pop star Olly Murs came through respectably.

Downstairs, an indoor running track allows players to be tested for speed and to perform sprints with sleds trailing behind them.

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All around the surrounding corridors in St. George’s Park, massive slogans on the walls spell out “The future starts now” and “Often the toughest challenge is implementing change.”

Accommodation

The real beauty of St. George’s Park is that everything is within walking distance. There’s no jumping on a bus to go training or trecking back to the hotel afterwards.

The FA partnered up with Hilton Hotels upon planning St. George’s Park, meaning there is a 228-room luxury hotel on site, providing plenty of space for Ireland to settle in for the week.

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Ireland’s players, as always, are sharing rooms, although the various photos of England footballing greats in the rooms have gone down badly in some places.

Paul O’Connell is said to be fairly unhappy to have Peter Shilton staring down at him every night, but Sean Cronin is reportedly delighted with an image of David Beckham in his room. It’s questionable whether Theo Walcott and Raheem Sterling belong on the walls just yet.

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The hotel at St. George’s Park is open to the public as well as visiting teams and the England squads, and runs at roughly 80% occupancy across the year.

While the peaceful atmosphere is welcomed by Schmidt and his players, one senses that anything longer than a week might be testing on the patience and energy levels of the athletes who spend time at St. George’s.

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The lecture theatre serves as a cinema, while Ireland have installed pool and fussball tables in their team room for the week, which is situated in the ‘Club England’ area of the hotel.

A full spa, including pool, sauna and all the usuals completes the deal.

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The FA are considering selling a portion of the site for a nine-hole golf course to be built in the near future and rumour has it that that particular move has been sparked by the English footballers who spend so much time at St. George’s.

To stave off any potential boredom, Ireland are planning to use their day off on Thursday to get out and about, some players and staff visiting nearby Birmingham, others playing golf at the Belfry, some going shooting, and another group heading the 30 minutes up the road to Alton Towers.

Ireland’s own version

Back in Ireland, the National Sports Campus very much feels that it is on course to complete a training base that will more than match St. George’s Park.

David Conway has been central to the Abbotstown project as development manager since the early days of 2001 and says St. George’s Park has been something of an inspiration.

“I visited St. George’s Park, I visited places in Europe,” said Conway. “We’ve modelled a lot of what we have developed from those site visits, so it’s looking at a one-stop shop for rugby development, GAA development or FAI development.”

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The FAI are already based on the 500-acre Blanchardstown campus, with six pitches of various surface types, including one replica of the Aviva Stadium’s. Martin O’Neill’s side prepared for their recent games against Georgia and Gibraltar in Abbotstown.

The GAA, meanwhile, are putting significant money into the campus and will be fully on site by next January. They already have a pitch the specific dimensions of Croke Park beside the National Aquatic Centre.

Plans for the National Indoor Arena have already moved into building work on phase one, which includes an indoor athletics track, gymnastics facilities and space for a range of other sports under the roof. Work is expected to finish in November of 2016.

Perhaps more pertinently for Irish rugby, the National Sports Campus are now seeking investors for phase two of the Indoor Arena. That work would provide covered rugby and soccer pitches with connected meeting rooms, S&C facilities and changing areas.

The on-site Institute of Sport means a wide range of rehabilitation and sports science resources already exist. The IRFU has backed the National Sports Campus project from as early as 2012.

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Furthermore, Conway and the other key brains behind the operation are pushing forward plans for an on-site hotel. His belief is that the crucial phase two of the indoor plans is full achievable, and that its completion would provide a home alternative to places like St. George’s Park.

“I think it’s all got to do with the proximity of everything together. You go from your bed into rehab, then onto the pitch. If the weather is bad, you can just head onto your indoor pitch.

It’s like a one-stop shop for sports development, particularly high-performance sports development.”

The GAA and FAI are fully onboard, but the IRFU possibly need a little more certainty on the covered pitches to begin work on their own range of outdoor pitches at Abbotstown.

The day where the Ireland squad are doing all their preparations for the Six Nations and World Cups in Abbotstown may not be too far in the future. Conway believes that the funding and completion of phase two of the Indoor Arena would be a significant boost for the country.

“What Ireland would achieve from those facilities would be just superb for Irish sport.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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