Football: Wilkinson calls for coaching revolution

Norman Fox hears FA's technical director stress the need for change
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Premiership chairmen who have seen the income of their clubs grow enormously because of football's "new" television money will this week be told exactly what they should be putting back into the game to ensure that top-class coaching eventually produces British players who are as good as the best foreign imports.

At the risk of being called xenophobic, the Football Association's director of coaching, the former Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson, is concerned that in the long term the present proliferation of foreign players will lead to far fewer talented home-born ones being available.

If the setting up of football "academies" leads to his recently launched "Charter for Quality" being successful, the problem could be overcome, but it must have the full backing of the Premiership and Nationwide League members, otherwise a future crisis is inevitable. The chairmen will also be reminded that Britain now has the least fit children in Europe.

This Thursday's meeting is hugely important to a sport which because of publicity about money swilling about in the Premiership has been lulled into forgetting that coaching nationwide is under-funded, haphazardly organised and lagging behind many countries in the rest of Europe. By suggesting that the sport is too well-off to require involvement in the proposed National Academy, even the Government has lost sight of the fact that football's development at youth level is still under- resourced.

Some of the leading clubs already have good coaching programmes for youngsters, but nationwide coaching is too fragmented and heavily dependent on well- meaning parents and teachers rather than properly trained coaches. Wilkinson says that the good-intentioned amateurs need to be brought under the jurisdiction of a network of regional directors. At present, coaches below national level feel inferior and unimportant. "If you enter medicine and become a GP rather than the top brain surgeon," he pointed out, "that's not considered failure. You've found your niche in that profession."

Premiership clubs will be asked to become responsible for awarding licences to local football academies. It is also proposed that a condition of membership of the Premier League will be the adoption of the criteria for the academies which will be responsible for the development of players from the age of 8 to 21, as is the case on the Continent where clubs take much greater responsibility for organising youth teams and looking after the general welfare of young players.

"Coaches in youth development in this country work in a job rather than a profession, and that's an indication why we've failed to keep pace with other countries such as Germany and France," Wilkinson said. "What a lot of the western world realised a while ago was that our children's lifestyles were not producing footballers and athletes naturally."

In other words, street football is no longer an option and the television- computer age has turned a generation of youngsters into unfit, chip-devouring couch potatoes. "In football a lot of nations decided that in order to stay ahead of the game, they had to look at youth development as a key to their future," he added. "Training for working with children in other countries is much more extensive. In short we haven't taken it seriously enough as a footballing nation. Consequently a lot of people working in it have had to fight their way through - there have been some torch bearers but we've never really regarded coaching as a profession."

Youth coaches at Premiership clubs are constantly changing and the quality is not as high as on the Continent, which is why the FA and the Professional Footballers' Association are combining to persuade professional players to take more interest in coaching. There is a plan to "fast-track" them into schemes, though Wilkinson admits that a player such as Bryan Robson would never have had time to qualify as a coach before turning manager.

"But there are players who have an affinity with kids yet don't know how to use their ability. We have to get them on to the right track and, because of their experience, they should be entitled to start above the bottom rung of the ladder. There is a pool of talent there we have to tap."

One of the main problems coaches face is the tendency for youngsters to believe that because they receive meaningless medals at the age of nine, they know it all. One of the duties of coaches under Wilkinson's plan will be to make young hopefuls see that the best of the foreign players in the Premiership realised their own hopes mainly because of good, early coaching in their own countries. The Premiership chairmen also need to digest that lesson.