Remembering Lilleshall: Football’s answer to Hogwarts
In a dusty cellar, beneath an early 19th-century hunting lodge in the middle of the Shropshire countryside, sits a little piece of English football history. A discarded honours board, the type you see in cricket clubhouses, is propped against some old cardboard boxes.
On it are the names of 12 full England internationals. All of them, at one time or another, lived in this house. Three other former residents have since won senior England caps, the most recent and almost certainly last being Leon Osman.
In some ways the board is testament to their time here. This is the place Joe Cole “learned so much”; where Jamie Carragher spent the “best two years” of his life and Michael Owen says was the making of him. In fact, speak to any player who attended the FA’s School of Excellence at Lilleshall between 1984 and 1999 and they’ll struggle to find a bad word to say about the place.
But what must ‘the Lilleshall experiment’ have been like for those involved; a bunch of kids from all over the country thrown together miles from home, with dreams of becoming football stars competing with the realities of adolescence? As FFT discovered, these walls have ears…
Cream of the crop
- “He was pulling up trees even then,” says one of Owen’s Lilleshall contemporaries. “Some players develop at different rates than others, physically and technically, but it was obvious he was going to make it.” Owen was glowing about his time in Shropshire: “It’s where my game really took off.”
Set up by then-England manager Bobby Robson and the FA’s technical director Charles Hughes, Lilleshall’s aim, according to the governing body, was to give the country’s best 16 footballers in their age group “the opportunity of developing as a selected young talented player in the ideal environment, with the best coaches for a maximum amount of time”.
Each intake was selected via a series of local, regional and national trials, whittled down from around 2,000 until the cream of the country’s finest 14-year-olds were identified, with the ultimate aim of equipping them for international football – should they make it that far.
In theory, the idea of the best training with the best, coached by the best, was a sound one, but not everybody approved. “I remember Graham Taylor telling me not to go,” says Rod Thomas, who arrived at Lilleshall in 1985 from Watford, where he was already being dubbed ‘the new John Barnes’.
Jamie Carragher, who arrived in 1992, was also under pressure from Liverpool, who feared the National School would “ruin” the “best 14-year-old in the country”. Carra was having none of it. “Lilleshall was the perfect grounding for a young professional,” he later insisted.
But what made it so special to those who attended? It certainly wasn’t a feeling of familiarity. Nestled in the heart of a 30,000-acre site owned for centuries by various ruling classes, Lilleshall Hall couldn’t have been more alien to its newest residents.
"Like a grand old haunted house"
The grounds boast perfectly manicured lawns and hedges, ornate fountains, cloisters, a bowling green and a 70-foot obelisk
“I thought I was arriving at a mansion,” said Carragher. And it’s some mansion. Before you even get to the Grade II listed building the footballers called home, you must enter the estate via the ‘Golden Gates’ – an exact replica of those in front of Buckingham Palace – and negotiate the 1.6-mile drive. Lined with conifers and pines, you wouldn’t be at all surprised if Her Majesty emerged in a Land Rover from one of the many tracks winding off into the surrounding countryside.
“The house itself is exactly like Hogwarts in Harry Potter,” says Danny Webber, who arrived from Manchester United’s youth set-up in 1996. “It’s quite eerie, especially when you’re trying to sleep for the first couple of nights. It’s silent, and when you go outside at night it’s pitch black.”
Rod Thomas agrees: “It’s like a grand old haunted house, with dark corners and creaky doors.” Not to mention sweeping stairways, stained-glass windows, chandeliers, uneven floorboards, bookshelves that could pass for secret passageways and two stags’ heads mounted on the wall in reception (and yes, their eyes do follow you).
The canteen even has decorative faux Roman columns, for goodness’ sake. The grounds, meanwhile, boast perfectly manicured lawns and hedges, ornate fountains, cloisters, a bowling green and a 70-foot obelisk. Obviously. This was as far from the council estates of London, Manchester and Liverpool as you can imagine.