IT IS NOT every day that you get a chance to visit the home of English football, so when I was invited along with the team from the Strachan Football Foundation (SFF) I snapped their hand off.
Fittingly it was a gorgeous day with not a cloud in sight as I met coaches George Mackie (Director of Football), Dan Elliott (Managing Director) and Chay Thompson, as well as the players who had been given a chance to play at St George’s Park in Burton Upon Trent.
These players have successfully come through trials and become part of the SFF, which is now in its sixth year and provides youngsters with the opportunity to continue their education while improving as footballers and learning from some of the best coaches in the country.
It is the brainchild of former Premier League and Scotland star Gordan Strachan and has helped hundreds of young people find full-time education and impressive football scholarships in the USA.
But this trip was all about football. This was perhaps a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this latest crop of talent to showcase their skills at the new home of English football.
As we arrived at the £105million venue, I was immediately taken back by the beauty of its surroundings.
George kindly gave us a tour of the venue which is home to all 24 England sides and boasts no fewer than 12 outdoor pitches, one of which is the exact replica of Wembley, a hugely impressive full-size indoor pitch, and a whole host of facilities, from a rehabilitation and sports science areas to a 228-bedroom Hilton hotel.
It was all impressive stuff but as we parked up at our destination it was time for the staff and players to produce their game faces.
This wasn’t a day out. SFF were up against the Nike Football Academy. Based at St George’s Park, they are fully funded by the popular sports brand and are made up of the best young talent across the world, with most players likely to go on and sign for professional clubs.
As far as tests go, this was going to be as tough as it gets for the SFF youngsters.
I was given access to to the changing rooms and listened in carefully to the pre-match team talk, which among many other things, focused on a need for the SFF players to let their opponents know they were in the game. The first ten minutes were crucial.
The plan seemed to work early on and SFF made a bright start by more than holding their own against what looked like a more superior opposition.
But football comes down to taking you chances and I watched on from the dugout as the SFF boys leaked four goals in quick succession during a 20-minute spell to give themselves a maintain to climb after the break.
What can only be described as an ‘old school’ team talk by a passionate George Mackie got the team fired up and my hands were shaking as the second half got under way, although I wasn’t sure if that was because of the cold or George’s choice of words and tone of voice!
“It’s men against boys,” coach Chay turned and said to me as the half progressed and with a resigned shrug I agreed. He was right.
The hosts went on to dominate much of the second half and record a comfortable victory, but the SFF players showed signs of their talent at small periods.
It was understandibly a disappointing changing room and although the coaches were unhappy about losing so heavily, and they did not hold back in telling the players that, they also stressed how much of a learning curve this was.
Dan told me afterwards: “This was a big test for us and we always knew it was going to be hard. Perhaps we need to play teams like this more often.
“That is the level these guys are aspiring to be at. Our team was made up of Under-18s while they were Under-21 players. This game showed how much they need to improve to get to where they want to be.”
It was a harsh lesson for the SFF players but you could tell from their reaction that these young players want to progress their careers and follow in the footsteps of many previous SFF success stories.
Many players have gone on to become professionals, including Coventry’s very own Luke Lehy who was signed by former Sky Blues boss Steven Pressley while at Falkirk and the defender has gone on to become a first team regular in the Scottish Premier League.
Others have gone down a different route. More recently SFF player Harry Reilly earned himself a life-changing scholarship for Rio Grande University in America and former captain, Sean Conaboy, took on an offer to move to Syracuse in the state of New York to attend LeMoyne University.
As we sat down for something to eat inside St George’s Park I took the chance to get to know more about the coaches and SFF.
Today was all about football but there is another and equally as important side to SFF – education.
The likeable team of coachs have helped deliver hundreds of qualifications over the past five years. A variety of courses and qualifications are available in partnership with Heart of England Training ranging from full-time BTEC qualifications in sport, to FA coaching certificates.
Combine that with the hard-working and hugely impressive coaching setup in place at SFF, and you have the tools not only to progress as a footballer but also as a person.
This was a difficult learning experience for these young players but it is one many will no doubt look back in in years to come as being a pivotal moment in their career progression.
If this sounds like something you’d be interested in there are trial days taking place on February 19-20. To apply fill in an application form from www.strachanfootballfoundation.co.uk and return it to [email protected].