Football: Coaching overhaul means end of era

Glenn Moore goes back to the classroom where a revolution in English football is taking place
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The Independent Online
IT WAS long ago, Bobby Moore was still playing for England and the Bay City Rollers singing for Scotland. I had just turned 10 and was about to play on a full-sized football pitch for the first time.

It is not an experience you forget, the pitch seemed vast but Mr Hawkins, who "coached'' the school football team, knew how to stop us running after the ball in a pack. "Your dad was a right-back, so you play there. Stay on that side and don't cross the half-way line.''

That memory came back this week as the English Schools FA lamented the end of an era. The victory over Brazil last Saturday was the last Wembley international to be run by the blazers and mortar boards. Now the professionals, led by Howard Wilkinson, the FA's Technical Director, will be in charge of youth development.

The change is part of a revolution in English coaching as outlined in Wilkinson's Charter for Quality. Among the most significant measures is a belated overhaul of the coaching system to ensure well-meaning amateurs will not be replaced by unsuitable professionals.

Two years ago I took the FA Preliminary Coaching Badge, the lower tier qualification. A 30-hour course spent entirely on the training pitch - apart from a basic examination on the laws of the game - it was interesting and instructive but fundamentally flawed. There was no mention of nutrition, physiology, sports medicine, injuries, warm-ups or warm-downs. Those who passed were unleashed on players with no further supervision and no requirement to keep their knowledge up to date.

The course was at least 25 years old and it showed. Glenn Hoddle had not bothered doing it, or the full badge, the upper qualification, nor had many other managers from park to Premiership.

Last month I took the Prelim's replacement, the FA coaching certificate. Costing pounds 90 it was designed in accordance with Uefa guidelines and in conjunction with the Professional Footballers' Association and Loughborough University. It was launched amid fanfare by the likes of Alex Ferguson and Steve Heighway last autumn, but would it be any better?

Early indications were not promising. At around 9am one Monday just over 30 of us wandered into the University of London's playing fields near Wimbledon and were asked to squeeze into a classroom reminiscent of Tom Brown's schooldays. There was a blackboard but not enough desks. We gazed wistfully at the pitches outside. A dated Charles Hughes coaching book was passed around. This was the new, singing-and-dancing "modern'' course?

It was. For the next 75 minutes we talked about preparation: how to set up a session, the equipment required, aspects of health and safety, warming- up, cooling-down. It was mostly common sense - making sure you had contact numbers for players' next-of-kin and knew where a phone was; checking for things like broken glass that might cause injury - but it needed to be known.

The classroom work, done by in groups and general debate, not lectures, also broke the ice before we headed for the pitches. We were aged 20-45 but mainly in our 30s, all male except Michelle, a teacher, and included students of West Indian, middle-eastern and Asian descent.

I had been worried about the difficulty of fitting the course around work - it was the week Frank Clark was sacked and Gianluca Vialli held his first press conference - but my concerns were put in perspective by Stuart. A member of the RAF, he was on standby to go to the Gulf - several close colleagues were already there.

There were other military personnel, several teachers (it was half-term), a hairdresser, a sports masseur, a surveyor, a shipping importer and recently graduated students.

Motives varied. Two already coached professionally, at Fulham and Watford, but wanted to expand their knowledge and gain the formal qualification. Stuart, who was coming out of the RAF, was one of several who wanted to work in America at summer camps. Des and Andy, a father and son, intended to open a football school. Imad, the masseur, wanted another string to his bow when working with clubs. "Badger" had been asked to coach his nephew's team and felt he ought to do it properly.

He was not alone. One encouraging aspect for Wilkinson's reform was the number of students who coached local youth or boys' teams and wanted to be better qualified. "It used to be rare," said Mark, who ran an under- 12 side, "but now most junior team managers have qualifications.''

Most courses are at weekends, this was Monday to Friday, 9.30 till about 4.30, 50 hours in total, plus an evening studying the laws and another doing first aid. The Surrey FA had already held one such course and suffered a considerable drop-out. The bold response was to run two courses alongside each other, one taken by county coach Keith Boanas, the other by Kenny Bremner, who was on Fulham's youth coaching staff. Both had been decent non-league players.

The paperwork went on to include attitudes and ethics, physiology, overuse injuries, how to spot and guard against child abuse, nutrition, and further advice on the mechanics of coaching. The Hughes book was used for its training routine, his "direct-play'' (old-style Wimbledon) philosophy was not mentioned.

The practical aspect is largely unchanged but there was a greater emphasis on coaching us to coach. We were alternately taught a technique or aspect of the game - such as turning with the ball, or winning the ball back in a small-sided game - then asked to demonstrate how we would coach it. Playing abilities varied, a couple of players struggled to cope, at the other end of the scale a few topped up their regular wages playing non- League on Saturdays.

On the old course you were judged at the end of the practical on your three topics. Now you go away and do 16 hours recorded coaching, half with adults, half with kids, then come back to be assessed on two further topics. Only then can you pass.

Our reassessment is in May but one problem is doing the coaching. It is a sensible idea but not everyone has access to teams and this is a major reason why people do not come back to complete the course. One student said he had arranged, beforehand, to work with a top Ryman League team but now that he realised how difficult it was he no longer fancied the idea.

Those who pass - and failures can be reassessed without having to do the whole course again - can go on to do the Coaching Licence, and the Advanced Coaching Licence. These two are equivalent to Uefa awards and without the latter you cannot coach the likes of Juventus or Ajax. They are among the very few pan-European qualifications in any area of employment and, in time, will be required to coach in the Premiership.

None of my group will reach such heights but all appeared to enjoy and benefit from the week. The course is a significant advance and most coaching professionals support it. It is also very hard work and there were a lot of tired limbs by Friday night.

However Dave Bromley, Surrey's coaching secretary, noted: "The people who do it are the converted, the ones prepared to make a commitment in time and money. The ones who need the course, the parents who stand on the touchline and shout 'don't take it'. As Barrie Williams, the former Sutton United manager who beat Coventry in the FA Cup, used to say, there are three things every bloke thinks he knows all about, how to drive, how to make love and how to play football.''

As Meatloaf said, two out of three ain't bad.