IF England are going to stick to FA chairman Greg Dyke’s masterplan and win the World Cup in 2022 then St George’s Park is going to have a key role in the success story.
The national football centre will focus the coaches, give the stars of the future the technical skills to compete with the very best and be the home base from which world domination is plotted.
So managing St George’s Park is a big responsibility for Julie Harrington – a 44-year-old Manchester United fan from Tutbury, whose job it is to make sure the centre is at the heart of the mission.
Julie takes time out from a busy week to meet The Post and Times at the FA centre’s coffee shop and reflects on the first year of business at St George’s Park, which was officially opened on October 9, 2012.
She says: “The first question everyone asks me is when are England going to win the World Cup? It’s great that we have set some targets about that. It gives everyone something to work for and creates an energy and tension around the place.
“I do have to manage everyone’s expectations and tell them I’m manning it as a business, I can’t have much of an impact the pitch. As much as my dad might tell people I help pick the England team, I do have to dispel that myth!”
Julie came to the job from the horse racing industry and says the main difference is that ‘everyone has an opinion on football’.
“That’s great as it means they have a sense of ownership but no-one ever said to me ‘they should have had a different jockey on that horse’ as they left that to the experts but that’s not the case in football. You only need to listen to the phone-ins and you see that everyone thinks they could do better than the manager.
“I can tell you that working in close proximity gives you a huge respect for the coaching staff. It’s always more complex than it seems. So we keep our opinions to ourselves although that doesn’t stop us being fans. We see our job as being here quietly behind the scenes and making it easier for the talented people to do their jobs. If we can create that real performance-driven environment with the brilliant facilities they need, we will have done our bit.”
She adds with a smile: “But of course, if they win the World Cup, we will claim some credit.”
Julie began working in Burton in the brewing industry, managing pub estates for Carlsberg Tetley. She was the brand manager for Wacky Warehouse before she moved into horseracing, managing Uttoxeter Racecourse.
Julie moved to the area permanently from Manchester in 2003
“I had no idea they would be building St George’s Park just down the road from me,” she says.
During the off-on building of the centre she was busy running ten racecourses.
“That basically involved running 10 leisure businesses and making sure they were commercially viable,” she says. “There are a lot of similarities with St George’s Park, such as demonstrating you can run a safe sporting event. Both horse racing and football are also very turf led. Grass is a living, breathing thing and I understand the huge amount of work that goes into getting the best out of that surface whether for horse racing or football. There’s also no point in building something like St George’s Park and not getting the best use out of it. So my background in filling racecourses with corporate customers, fans and sports people is very similar to what goes on here.
“Some colleagues did wonder why I wanted to go from managing 10 venues to one but I came for a tour round the building site in my old role thinking about maybe bringing jockeys here and using the facilities. I came away inspired by the idea of being part of something that’s so important for English football. I felt straight away that these were exciting times and that this was the start of something.”
It shouldn’t matter that Julie is a woman heading up an important football facility but particularly with the FA’s image about being run by old school types in blazers, did she have any qualms about taking the job?
“From the outside looking in I thought it might be an issue,” she admits. “And it was a question I asked as I wouldn’t want a job where I was constantly frustrated and banging my head against the wall. I think people’s perceptions of the FA from the outside are wrong and we need to better explain what a young diverse organisation we have. People think it’s full of old men in blue blazers and it’s not. My first week walking around the FA offices I thought ‘this isn’t like that’ and I got a sense of the diverse exciting organisation the FA is.
“Do I still think there are a few people with their arms folded saying ‘she’s managing the football centre and I bet she couldn’t explain the offside rule?’ Yes, potentially - but it doesn’t bother me. We keep our heads down and aim to do a good job. Actions speak louder than words.”
St George’s Park is under the greatest scrutiny when Roy Hodgson’s England senior team drop in for training ahead of a key international game but the national boss is pleased with the facilities at his disposal.
Julie says: “Roy would never be shy about giving us feedback. He’s been really supportive. When the England seniors are here we have a pitch reserved and ready and he’s been thrilled with the quality. Of the 24 teams they are the only one who have home matches a few hours away but it’s still their home.”
Julie grew up in Manchester and got her first taste of football in the lower leagues.
“My dad took me to Gig Lane to watch Bury,” she says. “But I became a Man United fan. That was in the 1970s and I always have to say that because it proves I’m not a glory hunter! They weren’t doing quite so well then, it was all Liverpool. “
But she says her job has changed ‘the way I watch football’.
“I went to White Hart Lane (to watch Spurs play Manchester United) and ended up watching the England players and wanting them to do well, even though they are playing against you.
It humanises them as well. You see them on TV and they look like giants and when you are looking at them here they are young lads – young enough to be my son. So you do worry about them getting injured.
“It gives you a window into the lives of an elite sports person. Everyone says ‘overpaid footballers’ but I can tell you they work incredibly hard and they are very focussed and talented. They have to live and breathe the sport.”
St George’s Park has also welcomed Stuart Lancaster and the England rugby team and the GB basketball and hockey squads.
Julie says: “It gives you a huge amount of respect for these elite athletes.”
Julie believes that St George’s Park is the key to giving the England team at all levels a ‘club’ feeling
She says: “I remember Euro 96 and what a great buzz it created in the country. I was involved in it through links with Carlsberg-Tetley at the time. There was such a feelgood factor around and I realised how if English football is doing well there’s a big spin off through the whole country.
“I know lead a group of people here who are all focussed on producing more winning English teams, that’s really exciting.
“Greg Dyke has gone on record as saying that he wants to achieve success in 2022 and if you think about our under 15 players now, they will be in their prime them. So focusing on them and those youngsters being inspired by the established players makes a lot of sense. Before they trained in different places and didn’t know each other. Now everything is under one roof you get a real philosophy of what it means to play for England. By having a home we are creating a ‘club’ feel for England. It’s already beginning to work. We keep saying it’s a long term project; it’s not about overnight success.”
Julie has enjoyed her first year and is delighted with the response to St George’s Park. She also says there’s an unexpected bonus of her role.
“It does mean know that whenever I go to a family gathering, I always have the most interesting job!”