If you ever feel a touch of nostalgia for England’s 1966 World Cup win, sense the drama when you see that picture of Gazza with a tear in his eye and know that Harry Kane does more than just advertise razors, then a visit to the Hilton at St George’s Park is a must. It embodies the very essence of young England’s recent glories.
There’s that photo of a hyper-charged Stewart “Psycho” Pearce thumping his three-lions chest and emitting a primeval roar when the demons of his penalty miss had finally been avenged. Located at the geographical heart of the country close to Burton-upon-Trent, the National Football Centre is mission control for English Football.
Inevitably the cult of soccer celebrity creates a frisson of excitement. Who is that in Man City training kit at breakfast? Has Harry Maguire hung up his England blazer in your wardrobe? Has Gareth Southgate sat at your desk and selected his next squad?
Initially the lengthy drive, cutting through 330 acres of bucolic Staffordshire countryside, seems like the stylish approach to the ultimate country home. Then you come across the first of the thirteen football pitches before arriving at the futuristic Hilton Hotel.
Reception is high-ceilinged corporate vast. Behind the lengthy welcome desk are two screens, both bigger than double garage doors. They show a loop of the recent glories of the England football teams.
With three staff on duty, check-in is efficient, friendly and quick. There’s an egalitarian democracy to service here: no doorman, no porters. We don’t want young players getting ideas above their station…
Essentially the Hilton is the rather stylish dormitory for the National Football Centre. In total, 24 England teams including age group teams, disability squads and womens’ teams train here. These rooms have to be comfortable, spacious and able to satisfy footballers used to a luxurious lifestyle and for families recharging the batteries after Alton Towers.
I stayed in the quiet cocoon of an Executive Room with access to the drinks and canapés of the Executive Lounge.
Deep pile carpets and thick doors provide the hush to focus on your next challenge whether it be a penalty shoot out against Brazil or nearby Alton Towers’ queues. All part of the Sports Science masterplan to render Gary Lineker’s famous quote obsolete: “Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
There’s gender balance to the decor. A picture of the roaring Lionesses celebrating a goal on one wall and short-back-and-sides England captain Billy Wright on another. Marrying a singing Beverly sister, Wright and his wife were a prototype Posh and Becks, back in the days when a dab of Brylcreem was considered extravagant.
If I had done a day of shuttle runs and corner drills both bath and shower were large enough for comfortable ablutions.
There were ticks too for areas where some hotels fail: flannels were provided and there was sufficient space to spread our toiletries on the areas around the sink with its futuristic waterfall-style tap.
In a hotel where tracksuit and trainers are almost a dress code – unless it is black-tie for an awards dinner – it is hard to resist the urge to follow one of the recommended jogging trails. With water-features and immaculately marshalled coppices there’s a sense of golf-course landscaping to the grounds. As you jog through the 13 pitches you will also have the privilege of watching some outstanding footballing talent. It’s not just England: 2,000 teams have visited St. George’s.
Of course the gym, swimming pool and spa are pushing world class, facilities far more classy and extensive than you would normally associate with a 4* Hotel.
Head for the Crossbar Bar to watch a game on the big – and I mean big screen – and you’ll hear the sort of insightful analysis usually produced by the likes of Gary Neville and Martin Keown.
A protein station and a salad station on the buffet send the nutritious message that your body is a temple and you should be looking after it. Though if you are not a professional athlete there are plenty of decadent options on the dessert station … the wine list ain’t bad either.
If the buffet does not appeal then there is an a la carte menu most nights: quite rightly the national obsession of fish chips and mushy peas is nicely satisfied. There are some stylish sharing plates for starters too.
Many families use the hotel as a base for Staffordshire’s Number One tourist attraction: Alton Towers.
But I was there to visit Staffordshire’s second attraction, the Churnet Valley Railway. A legion of volunteers have adoringly and faithfully restored the charms of just over 10 miles of branch railway axed by Dr Beeching in 1965.
Hanging baskets on the platform, clipped cardboard tickets, guards with silver-chained fob watches and steam billowing through the valley all evoke nostalgic memories of a lost age.
My second mission was a visit to the Nelson’s Distillery and School. Over five hours I selected from 60 botanicals to create and distil my own gin. Along the way I tasted some of Nelson’s Gins, learnt about gin’s remarkable rollercoaster history and enjoyed a working lunch as I kept an eye on the drip-rate of my still.
Other nice touches
Alongside a coaching Hall of Fame there is a fascinating collection of football memorabilia around the bar and reception: memories of the Manchester United players striking for the right to belong to a union before the First World War. Then there’s a picture of the uniformed Sergeant Matt Busby serving amidst the ruins of Second World War Europe and the dog Pickles finding the stolen World Cup in 1966.
Check-out the hotel’s website for early-booking deals that begin at £87 for a double room.
The best bit
An outdoor photographic exhibition by Stuart Roy Clarke is moving in its inclusivity. As well as an image of a young Harry Kane training in gloomy drizzle with the U21 squad there are inspirational images of the commitment of players with cerebral palsy and blindness.
Disclosure: Our stay was courtesy of Hilton at St George’s Park.