Football's developing nation

Are the Premiership's millions being used to produce as well as buy players? Independent on Sunday writers investigate; Ian Ridley argues that it is time for the British coaching revolution
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Tommy Burns was a brave man to voice it. The Celtic manager was wondering aloud recently why it was that smaller clubs than his were winning European trophies. He ventured that the game in Britain needed to be more open-minded about foreign coaches and their methods.

Gradually, it is happening, it seems. The early impression of Arsene Wenger has been positive and Blackburn are strongly linked with the Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson. In addition come the announcements that Liverpool are to build a 12-pitch residential academy of excellence and Manchester United are to spend pounds 10m on a new training complex.

It all adds up to proof that the British game has awoken to the need to spend its windfall wealth - another pounds 36m over four years from Carling to sponsor the Premiership - on more than just ageing superstars with no resale value. Investment in the development of coaches and facilities, and thus players and the game, is now growing along the lines of the more enlightened foreign clubs.

"It is getting a nice balance between clubs developing their own and buying the occasional player that stimulates the supporters," says the Football Association's technical adviser, Don Howe. "I think the trend over the next five years will be more and more Premier clubs establishing their own schools along the Ajax and Auxerre lines.

"Clubs are also acting more responsibly and we are not just seeing money going out of the game. We have got new thinkers, new chairmen, who are saying that we want to develop, we ought to have good training facilities. If you look back only two years, our facilities, many of them rented, were an indictment of the way we viewed training and coaching."

Indeed, several clubs have openly admitted to building a roof before the foundations, including Blackburn and Newcastle. The former have since built their own training ground, with a hostel for trainees, and the latter are planning to do so. Two clubs, Leeds United and Tottenham, have opened expensive and extensive new facilities this season.

As well as being sound business it can make for a happier, and potentially more successful, environment. At Middlesbrough, Juninho has questioned the club's training facilities and structure; David Ginola at Newcastle has complained about playing head tennis at the club's leased training ground and being thrown off the court at 1pm.

Meanwhile at Arsenal, Monsieur Wenger has apparently been surprised that such a big club works from a rented ground. Chelsea, who also lease, have upgraded their facilities both to accommodate their increased youth activity and to satisfy signings used to the luxurious complexes in Italy. England's full stadiums may entice the top players but daily places of work are lastingly more impressive.

It will be the job of the FA's new technical director - Howard Wilkinson, should he decide against management again with Manchester City - to work with the clubs to raise standards of coaching within this improved infrastructure, as well as to oversee the development of young players and coaches flowing into the game. Despite the changes for the better there are still deficiencies that clearly exist from schoolboy level right to the very top.

All the Premiership clubs have now established centres of excellence, where the best young players in a district can come for more expert coaching than most schools these days can provide. At first the English Schools FA was sceptical, rightly questioning the "scrapheap-syndrome" that could exist and whether education would suffer.

Now the rules, which once allowed young players to attend for only one hour a week, are more relaxed and there is flexible access. Teachers sit on centre of excellence committees to monitor the progress, both in education and sport.

"We still have some catching up to do," says Don Howe. "At Ajax they are doing six sessions a week with a ball, we are doing one or two. There is probably no way the school hours here are going to change in line with the Continent, so we have to change and arrange to bus the kids to our centres and home again."

This extension of their role is part of the FA's work to overcome the falling away of coaching in schools. "The enthusiasm of teachers is not like it used to be, though we are trying with coaching the coaches and the Government is helping by saying that there will be some extra salary for teachers taking part," says Howe. There is also a need to extend the support and provide expertise for women teachers and for the parents forced by the lack of resources to help out in primary schools these days.

Improving the quality of coaching in the professional game is also a priority, says Howe. Too often, he says, managers without adequate qualifications themselves take on old playmates as coaches. New regimes can also sweep away blameless youth coaches and their systems. He cites as the way forward Arsenal's appointment of Liam Brady on a long contract to youth development with a position not linked to a change of management,.

While there must always be room for a manager with charisma capable of galvanising a club by force of his personality whatever his qualifications, it seems that change is also coming in a more professional, less haphazard, approach to coaching.

The FA's preliminary and advanced coaching badges will be superseded within two years by Uefa's A and B licences, which add to the practical elements of coaching theory such subjects as nutrition, psychology and sports science. There will also be a professional licence which will, says Howe, "open doors".

"We have to improve the quality of our coaches before we can improve players, not the other way round," adds Howe. "And things are on the change here. Arsene Wenger is just the start. The pressure on our coaches will grow. Chairmen will say `if you can't do it, I'll get someone in from abroad who can' and that's how it should be."

With cynicism towards Johnny Foreigner gradually being eroded on the pitch, perhaps, the British game is finally opening its mind sufficiently to adopt and adapt ideas on coaching and facilities. Maybe the world is returning with interest the game it was given by this nation.

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