“In approximately the year 2000, I went to the site with Howard Wilkinson. [We took] a photo by a gatepost in the middle of nowhere.”
It doesn’t seem like it — and probably didn’t at the time either — but the photo taken that day was the planted seedling that over the new decade grew into St George’s Park, England’s state-of-the-art training complex hidden in amongst unassuming East Staffordshire farmland.
“We’d seen national football centres spring up, Clairefontaine being an obvious one in France,” notes Adrian Bevington, who spent 17 years at The FA, working both as managing director of national teams (or Club England, as it was called), and as the organisation’s communications director for ten years.Embed from Getty Images
“It was felt that we needed a proper training ground instead of U21s, U17s and seniors all [being] in different places in a given week. Howard [Wilkinson, former England manager] was the brainchild.” Bevington also pays tribute to the work of the SGP chairman David Sheepshanks and managing director Julie Harrington.
“There was an army of people who were involved in different ways and saw the benefits to it. My direct role is that I was involved in various meetings during the planning stage — I was always an advocate of it. People like Gary Lewin, Ian Beasley and Gareth Southgate [were consulted to ensure] it ran properly. It wasn’t something that happened overnight. St George’s Park gave people a home. We should be very proud of it.”
Having left The FA back in 2015, Bevington can look back at a number of key successes during his time with English football’s national body. However, not everything runs smoothly all of the time.Embed from Getty Images
“There were a lot.” Bevington is referring to tabloid splashes about the England team. “I’m not saying they’re not powerful now but [newspapers] were incredibly powerful in the period before we had social media. We were dealing with very high-profile managers and a number of really big-name footballers.
“The one that stands out immediately [is the] one that ultimately resulted in Sven-Göran Eriksson losing his job — the sting that the News of the World did with the ‘Fake Sheikh’. That story emerged out of the blue on a Saturday afternoon while I was at home. It grew legs and resulted in the decision that Sven would leave the organisation after the World Cup in 2006. Through your network of contacts, you often get ahead of the curve and put plans in place. But some things do go beyond your control, no matter who you are.”
While the players of today are a younger group than perhaps any past England team was, they do seem more clued-up and streetwise than previous incarnations. Bevington is in no doubt about who merits a large portion of the credit for that.Embed from Getty Images
“Gareth Southgate — someone who’s a friend of mine and who I’ve known a long time — is absolutely integral to the way things have evolved over the past four years. He’s a bright guy, an affable individual, and has always been a real thinker. He’s taken that into the various roles he’s had in management, with The FA and previously Middlesbrough. His attitude towards dealing with the media has brought a level of quality that is a match for anything that we see anywhere, quite frankly.
“He’s an intelligent learner and meets people from different sports to take on board new ideas. He’s very inclusive; no matter what role you have you’ll be treated on the same level as anybody senior, which makes you feel good. Apart from being all of those positive things, he has been an elite player at the top level, managed in the Premier League and been U21s manager. So I think that gives him an insight that most people who become national team manager [don’t have]. I’m not sure of an obvious weakness that he has.” High praise indeed.
Former England great and FA director of football development Trevor Brooking gets a mention. “Trevor and myself worked hard to get Gareth in the organisation in the first place, when he became involved with the development teams. We pushed hard to get him into the role as U21 coach. We both saw him as a long-term England senior team manager. While those who came into The FA after Trevor and myself, decided on Sam Allardyce as manager, they stumbled into appointing Gareth due to the unforeseen situation involving Sam.Embed from Getty Images
“They had a young group of players come through at a good time, which was something predicted by Trevor Brooking over ten years ago — that it would happen in the mid-part of the last decade. The work [Southgate and his staff] did going into the World Cup, for example, was excellent.”
Bevington was just as impressed by the work The FA’s media team did during his time there. He talks in particular about Joanne Budd, former head of media operations and Michelle Farrer, former director of team operations. “Both were at The FA when I arrived and left. Both outstanding in their work and great colleagues. We may not have won a major men’s finals during my time, but the team operations and media facilities were always gold standard.”
International football hasn’t had an easy ride since Bevington first joined The FA in 1997. The club game has become richer, faster, more commercially sought-after, and more popular with fans. In Bevington’s eyes, though, national team matches are staying put. “Let’s be absolutely clear about this — those games bring in massive revenues for national associations, who redistribute huge amounts of money right throughout the game in each of those countries.”Embed from Getty Images
Bevington was left unimpressed by the recent comments by FA chairman Greg Clarke which led to his resignation from that role and from vice-presidency at FIFA. “I was surprised by them. I certainly don’t think anyone leading a national sport should ever have that in their mindset, so I was surprised and disappointed. I thought it was clumsy and wholly inappropriate. The FA and football do a huge amount of work to promote inclusivity, diversity and equality; I don’t think that should be lost on the comments of one individual, whatever his intent.”
The former managing director of Club England has a clear idea of the most important requirement of Clarke’s successor, due to be appointed this spring. “The FA chair — and I say ‘chairperson’ — is a really important, unique role in football. [They have] to have an understanding of football and the industry.”
Having worked as a sports reporter and as Middlesbrough’s press officer before employment at The FA, Bevington already had professional experience of working in football. When talking about The Football Association, he is keen to dispel the myth that the organisation is or was archaic.Embed from Getty Images
“I joined in ’97 when we were based at Lancaster Gate with a staff of about 100 people. Within two years we moved to Soho Square under a new chief executive, Adam Crozier, who was revolutionary. Adam moved the organisation through decades in the space of a few years. There was a very young workforce. People have this misconception that The FA is an ‘old’ organisation. The FA council often has people of an older age, but they meet once every couple of months. The FA is run by young [staff] on a day-to-day basis.
“It was an exciting time. When Sven was appointed, we had David Beckham, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole. That team captured the imagination of the nation. When we went to Japan in 2002, we certainly weren’t an old-fashioned organisation. We became criticised for being too marketing-focused. The irony.”Embed from Getty Images
But it paid off. In 2012, The FA struck a 10-year commercial deal with Nike, largely thanks to the work of the commercial director and CEO at the time, Stuart Turner and Alex Horne, respectively. The deal was worth a reported £25m per year.
“I think the organisation really transformed during that period. I was really proud of what we did with the England structure, [bringing] all the departments and 24 teams together internally. It was the first time that we had monthly meetings with the men’s and women’s senior coaches, U21s coach, the technical director, head of national teams — Ray Clemence was in that role. But you also had the chairman, chief executive, commercial director, team operations, legal people [and] myself in the room together. Big thinking started emerging from that room. During that period is when Dan Ashworth was brought in [as director of elite development]. From his arrival, the ‘[England] DNA’ was created.Embed from Getty Images
Bevington shares two of his highlights from his time at The FA. The first is the maiden women’s international at Wembley, when England played Germany in 2013. “I personally had to stick my neck out for that game. That game wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been determined we were going to do it. I spoke to a number of the women’s team players, and they were desperate to play at Wembley. Trust me, there was a lot of opposition to putting that game on.”
The second highlight puts football firmly into perspective.
“In the lead-up to Euro 2012 [in Poland and Ukraine], we worked very closely with the Holocaust Education Trust when the team went to Auschwitz. [It was rewarding] watching the players really commit to that. That showed the national team and FA working together really effectively.”