Farewell to world of no method, no guru

Keegan's England became a coaching-free zone, a fog of the FA's own making
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Twenty years ago, Dario Gradi was deciding whether he should join Chelsea or Derby as a coach when a colleague advised against Derby County on the grounds that it was not a "coaching club". Gradi, happily churning out intelligent young footballers on a shoestring at Crewe Alexandra, still does not know what that phrase means. But anyone involved with England in the last few months will understand. Under Kevin Keegan, Team England became a coaching-free zone as well.

Twenty years ago, Dario Gradi was deciding whether he should join Chelsea or Derby as a coach when a colleague advised against Derby County on the grounds that it was not a "coaching club". Gradi, happily churning out intelligent young footballers on a shoestring at Crewe Alexandra, still does not know what that phrase means. But anyone involved with England in the last few months will understand. Under Kevin Keegan, Team England became a coaching-free zone as well.

A chat with Gradi is always a decent antidote to the more barbarian elements of the game who still accuse coaches of ruining more players than they make. Gradi's little self-perpetuating empire, a stone's throw from Crewe terminus, remains a testimony to the power of player development. But the worrying aspect for the Football Association as they peer through the fog of their own making is that their neglect of the art of coaching has left a vacuum where the next generation of decent young international coaches should be. "Yes," Gradi laughs, "I've got a couple of good young coaches here, but I'm not going to tell you who they are, am I?"

Nothing much has changed down the years, says Gradi. "We still don't have a tactical ethos in this country. It's a case of sod the coaching, let's get on with the game. A lot of people say you shouldn't fill kids' heads full of tactics, you should teach them skills, but I see no earthly reason why you shouldn't be able to do both. If we're playing 3-5-2, who's going to mark the opposing full-backs - they're quite capable of coping with those sort of tactical things. You don't hammer them with free-kick routines and offsides, but you give them a decent understanding of the game."

Keegan's resignation statement was a tacit admission that he did not understand the game, not from this side of the touchline anyway. Why should he? Coaching skills cannot be measured in numbers of England caps. His appointment was widely regarded as a snub by the residents of football's bootrooms, who fondly believed that their profession's top job should be occupied by a more skilled practitioner than football's Mr Motivator. "What's required of an international coach?" asks Gradi. "Deciding a method of play, getting the best out of your players and having a tactical awareness. If you're playing Brazil in Brazil, you can't say 'let them chase the ball' because it won't happen. They might have better individual players, but that doesn't mean we lose the game."

There is some evidence to suggest that attitudes to coaching are at long last starting to change. Behind the scenes, where he works best, Howard Wilkinson has helped to restructure the coaching courses within the FA, a necessary prelude to the compulsory introduction of coaching qualifications in the new footballing academies and, eventually, in all professional clubs. Key coaching posts are no longer being allotted to club stalwarts as a reward for long service but to dedicated, well-qualified, full-time coaches, while a new breed of young manager, epitomised by David Moyes at Preston, are adopting continental practices and instinctively accepting the principle largely ignored in the English leagues down the years, but widely understood abroad, that players never stop improving.

Moyes gained his Scottish coaching qualification at the age of 22 and his English equivalent six years later. Though never an international, Moyes was an accomplished enough defender to win a Scottish Premier League medal with Celtic and to play in Europe, but he is under no illusions about the fickle nature of his new and so far highly productive profession. "I think some high-profile players think football owes them a job," he says. "Not having such a big name, I have to work harder to earn my rewards. Attitudes have changed, certainly at our club. Players now want to improve and with training morning and afternoon, there's maybe more time to work with an individual on a particular aspect, talking to him, showing him. I wish that I'd had the same level of coaching when I was a young player."

Like others of his generation, Moyes prefers to be on the training ground, the paperwork can wait. But the rise of Preston to the upper reaches of the First Division provides proof of what can be achieved by a bright and ambitious young coach working with players who want to learn with support from an enlightened board. The only problem for England is that Moyes' ambition is to coach Scotland.

A benefit of the academy system is that it provides a natural pathway for coaches as well as players. At Nottingham Forest, Paul Hart, who helped Wilkinson produce a rich crop of talent at Leeds, employs five full-time coaches in his academy, all of them qualified or in the process of being qualified. Under Wilkinson's influence, Hart took his preliminary coaching badge while still a player at Leeds and completed his full badge when Wilkinson took him to Sheffield Wednesday. But it is the combination of theory and practice which makes a decent coach, he says.

"Howard always insisted that coaches took their qualifications and I believe a coaching badge does give you credibility in the game, but you only learn the nuts and bolts of it by being out there. When I went to be manager of Chesterfield, looking at the mistakes I made, I simply didn't know enough. It wasn't just coaching, it was the diplomatic side of things. I hadn't matured properly."

His own influences range from aschoolmaster with shiny brogues who first taught him how to trap a ball, through watching the Manchester City of Summerbee and Bell, to Brian Clough, who, in assessing a young player, asked only: "Can he head a ball?" Heading required courage, Clough believed, and courage was the key ingredient in a footballer. Streets and backyards used to be the informal breeding ground for young players, Hart says, now it is the more formal structure of the academies.

Hart was pained by the ridicule heaped on his old mentor last week. "He's totally different from what people see," he said. He is equally frustrated that the job which should stand as the pinnacle of his profession - "everyone should want that job" - should be so widely reviled and thoroughly confused by the abject disintegration of the national side. "Are you telling me players like Beckham and Scholes can't pass the ball properly?" he asks. But the perverse and confused performance of Wilkinson, the FA's great reformer, did not help the cause last week.

If Adam Crozier, the chief executive of the FA, touts the coaching community for their views on the future, the name of Terry Venables will be high on his list. Whether Crozier or anyone else can stomach a return to the dinner-club spivvery of the Venables era is another matter. There has to be some dignity attached to the office.

The most acceptable combination would be a wise old head, preferably uncluttered and foreign, a man like the shrewd, deeply pragmatic and widely travelled Dutchman Leo Beenhakker, working - initially, part-time - with the most talented of the future England coaches, Peter Taylor and Alan Curbishley, and beyond them with those already glimpsing experience of international coaching, Stuart Pearce, David Platt or Peter Beardsley. Then at least a recognisable succession would emerge from the Keegan fiasco.

Six coaches who are getting it right

David Moyes: Manager, Preston, 37. Bright, articulate, forceful and working wonders with unheralded and attractive side chasing Fulham at top of First Division.

Jean Tigana: Manager, Fulham, 47. Made a dramatic improvement at Fulham with his free thinking and intelligent football. Immediately touted by many as a ready-made replacement for Kevin Keegan.

Jan Molby: Manager, Kidderminster, 37. Learnt his football under decent tutors, Cruyff at Ajax and Anfield bootroom, and is cheerfully and successfully introducing Harriers to Third Division.

Steve Round: First-team coach, Derby County, 29. Youngest first-team coach in Premier League. Promoted after Steve McClaren's departure to Man Utd and highly regarded by the manager, Jim Smith.

Steve McClaren: First-team coach, Man Utd, 39. Worthy successor to Brian Kidd and critical to United's treble triumph. Independent, inventive and well organised, arguably one of Sir Alex's most influential signings.

Dave Busst: Youth coach, Coventry, 33. Career ended by horrific injury, but has since established himself as intelligent and progressive coach under Gordon Strachan.

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