Football: You want to be a manager?

Holdsworth student of a new game
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The Independent Online
IT POSSIBLY would not appear among the profusion of figures produced by the Association of Football Statisticians, but an intriguing fact was revealed by the Sun newspaper last week: "388 Page 3 girls have dated footballers". If that tends to confirm one prejudice about players, there is another one, to which Dean Holdsworth readily concurs: "The general perception of footballers is that they're quite thick." It is unjust stereotyping, of course, as the Bolton striker proceeds to emphasise, just like the assumption that no player feels comfortable without the stiletto-clattering, blonde trophy wife or girlfriend on their arm.

What is true is that many professional footballers lack a thorough education because they leave school at 16, seduced by the twin sirens of riches and fame while playing the game they love. While that may not be any hindrance to their playing ambitions, it almost certainly is an impediment when they retire and progress to management. And never more so than today, when plcs set the rules.

It explains why Holdsworth, Sunderland captain Kevin Ball and Middlesbrough's Nigel Pearson are among those who last week began studying for their Certificate in Sports Management at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. A similar course, open to professional sportsmen and women, is to be run at Greenwich University, with Wimbledon's Robbie Earle and Peter Beardsley of Fulham expressing interest.

"Many sportsmen and women gave up formal education to pursue their sport at a high level," says Tunde Buraimo, a course co-ordinator at Preston. "We're bringing them back into education, but hopefully doing so in an environment that's not alien to them. They will acquire a range of skills which will help some of them go into sports management, others into management outside their sport, and some into private enterprises." Guest lecturers will include lawyers, media specialists and football managers - Northern Ireland's Lawrie McMenemy and Blackburn Rovers' Roy Hodgson are course advisers - to give a personal perspective of the perils ahead.

Ken Bruce, chief executive of Futures in Sport, the organisation which is recruiting students for the two courses, contends: "If a Premiership manager says after a Saturday match that his club needs several new players, it can have the effect, by the Monday, of wiping millions off the plc's share value. Managers now have to be far more conscious of communication and have a regard of the fact that their comments can affect what appears on the financial pages as well as the sports pages."

Much of the studying will done at home with the aid of BSkyB TV broadcasts. Among those featured on them are David Gower, talking about working in the media, Mike Reynolds from the Institute of Sports Sponsorship, and former England cricketer Robin Smith on running small businesses.

So, for Holdswworth, it's ex-Don to university don? Well, not exactly. But after a year studying 21 subjects, including managing conflict and stress, understanding profit and loss accounts, legal issues and marketing, nobody can suggest that Holdsworth, just turned 30, won't have a grasp of most problems managers willingly, or otherwise, will be confronted with at some stage.

"I want to stay in football and management is something which really appeals to me," explains East London-born Holdsworth, who learnt of the course through the PFA. "It's a wonderful world to be in. I love training and working with other footballers. So I'm trying to broaden my knowledge in football terms, but because this is a two-in-one course which offers a variety of management skills and is recognised by other industries it will help me in the future whatever I do."

Holdsworth, who left school at 16 having "passed a few exams - I was a good artist and good at PE" - went straight to an apprenticeship at Watford. "There's a lot to footballers that people don't know about," he adds. "We're branded by preconceptions. There's many out there who could do a first-class job in other working areas."

Some sceptics have already suggested that a paper qualification, however grandiose, won't save a manager from his ultimate fate, the sack. But Holdsworth maintains: "It's true that a diploma or degree can't teach you to head a ball, but if you have to deal with things like man management, I honestly think this course can help me. You can't buy the experience that football has taught me, but hopefully I might become a better listener and be able to deal with situations that might come up, in the dressing- room for example."

This is real pioneer territory for Holdsworth and his fellow students, 10 of whom have enrolled so far at Preston. "My team-mates are very interested in what I'm doing," says the player signed by Colin Todd for pounds 3.5m last year. "But they're quite sensible." He adds wryly, casting his mind back to his Crazy Gang days: "I suppose I might have got a different response if I'd still been at Wimbledon, although I had a good chat about the course with Robbie Earle when they played us in the Worthington Cup."

Holdsworth, who underwent some much-publicised domestic disharmony last year, is now settled in Formby with his family. "My wife Samantha is amazed about how sensible I'm being by doing the course, but she's very supportive about it," says the multi-talented sportsman who has also written a children's book about growing up as a footballer, which is being turned into a TV drama.

Last Monday was his first day on campus, when the group had their introductory lecture - on handling the media - from an ex-sports editor. "I found it intriguing," says Holdsworth. "It was good to listen to other players' and other people's points of view. I didn't want to sit there being bored, and I wasn't." You can take it that he will pass the communications element of his course with distinction.