The hi-tech age of Stone

Tottenham's novice coach has fulfilled a boyhood dream. Now his aim is higher
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The Independent Online

Michael Stone is hardly a familiar name in football but if enterprise, confidence and ambition have any pull in life then some time within the next 20 years or so it is one that could be on every fan's lips, as well as those in charge at the Football Association.

Michael Stone is hardly a familiar name in football but if enterprise, confidence and ambition have any pull in life then some time within the next 20 years or so it is one that could be on every fan's lips, as well as those in charge at the Football Association.

At 21, Stone is the youngest professional coach in the land - by a distance - but even more remarkable is that as a youngster playing parks football, his lifetime dream was not to wear an England shirt, but simply to be tracksuited in the dugout with a clipboard, programming the team's tactics. "I knew from a very early age that I was never going to make it as a player," he said. "But I was so much in love with the game I just had to be part of it."

So, as a schoolboy he would wander down to the Tottenham Hotspur training ground, Spurs Lodge, just a throw-in away from his family home in Chigwell, Essex. And while his wide-eyed mates were watching the players, Stone was keeping his own eyes on the coaches. "I watched everything they did, how they instructed the players and worked out the moves. I found it fascinating."

Afterwards he would quiz the coaches and managers, like Gerry Francis and Christian Gross and later the director of football David Pleat. He inquired of Pleat how he could become a coach with Spurs. "Go and get your qualifications then come back and we'll talk about it," Pleat advised him. Stone did exactly that and three months ago he won his Spurs. As he was introduced as Tottenham's new youth academy coach, Chris Hughton, one of the senior staff, remarked: "Aren't you the kid who used to bug us out on the training ground?" Stone nodded. "I knew I had to earn everyone's respect because of my age and lack of experience, and it is easier to do that when you bring in some fresh ideas. That's what I've tried to do."

Born into the technological age, Stone says he is a believer in planning and organisation, mapping out his schedules and strategies on a computer. "Some of the other coaches call me 'Laptop Larry'," he laughed. "But they've been brilliant. I could hardly believe it when Spurs gave me this chance. People like the head of youth, Peter Suddaby, who interviewed me, and coaches like Pat Holland and Jimmy Neighbour have given me more responsibility than I could ever have expected. I could sit and listen to David Pleat, George Graham and Stewart Houston all day. I've learned loads from them. It's a wonderful environment in which to learn the skills of management.

"I know I'm serving an apprenticeship as a coach, especially when it comes to tactics. That's not something that's done brilliantly on coaching courses, so it's great to get that sort of experience here."

There is no doubt that Tottenham saw something special in Stone, just as they might a young player with talent. Novice coach he may be, but, in an era when so many coaches have missed the bus, Stone could emerge as a driving force, because the qualifications Pleat suggested he acquire are staggeringly substantial.

Although his playing peak was as captain and central defender for Sunday League side Leytonstone Victoria, at 17 Stone had obtained his first coaching qualification from the London FA. And three years at Loughborough University resulted in a degree in sports and business management. His main study was on the future of football academies and he spent part of his time on a coaching attachment with Nottingham Forest, where he was subsequently offered a full-time job.

But he always wanted to return to London and work with Spurs, though, ironically, he was not brought up as a Tottenham fan: "My club as a kid was West Ham because my father always took me there, but living so close to the Spurs training ground it was natural to go along in my spare time and pick up all the information I could."

It was after he had been awarded his Uefa B coaching badge - emerging with top marks in both practical and theory sections - that he decided to see whether Pleat was as good as his word, and sent him his CV. "Any coaching course I've been on, I've always been the youngest by far," he said.

He is now in the final stages of securing his Uefa A licence, the ultimate in coaching, embracing everything from match analysis to diet and nutrition. He will be the youngest ever to receive it. "Some of the youngsters here still come up to me and say, 'Is it true you are only 21?' But I don't seem to have any trouble in gaining their respect."

He admits to being a subscriber to Howard Wilkinson's belief that the future of English football lies in the establishment of academies like Tottenham's. Some 40 are in the pipeline throughout the country.

"I'm fortunate with Spurs because while many clubs are happy to train up players, not many will nurture their own coaches. But I suppose the biggest obstacle, apart from my age, is not having played the game at a decent level, though people like Gérard Houllier, Arsÿne Wenger and Alex Ferguson's No 2 at Manchester United, Steve McClaren, seem to have done OK."

Stone works mainly with Tottenham's under-19s and under-17s, and altogether there are some 150 youngsters from eight to 18 on their books, plus a handful from overseas. "There's some terrific young talent here but one of the problems, of course, as at all clubs, is that the kids worry about their future in the game because of the influx of foreign players. It is certainly very worrying if the situation is going to block good, home-grown talent, and it is a problem that has to be seriously addressed ,otherwise young English kids will become disillusioned.

"I know the English game at international level is on a bit of a downer, but I'm very upbeat. Providing the growing number of academies are properly run, and oppor- tunities are given to our youngsters, I think English football will be great again by the time the next generation of players, some of whom may not yet be in their teens, mature."

And what about Michael Stone's own maturity? "Well, I'm definitely interested in management eventually, but there's a long way to go. I know I'll probably be in youth football for a long time but after that, who knows?" Who indeed? What the FA know is that good, young, English coaches are thin on the ground. Maybe this particular Stone could turn out to be a diamond.