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The Problem with Coaching in England

Since the World Cup, the issue of the lack of quality of players coming through the youth systems in England has been under scrutiny. Whilst there are the odd technically gifted players, the majority base their game around superior athleticism and strength, rather than ability with the football. It has raised the question of whether England is producing athletes that play football, rather than footballers.

There is a major problem with the youth system in this country. However, it is not just at youth level where there are issues. The entire coaching structure from grassroots, through the youth system, right to the very top level of the Premiership has major flaws, and needs to urgently be addressed if England are to give themselves any hope of returning to the pinnacle of world football in the future. The next World Cup in Brazil will almost certainly come too soon, and regrettably, the possibility of the 2018 World Cup in England may even come before a new generation, talented enough to challenge, emerges.

The old adage is that there is a choice that has to be made between quality and quantity. However, in England, with regards to coaching, there is a lack of either. No English manager has ever won the Premiership since its inception. Indeed, only two English managers have won the title in the past 25 years – Howard Wilkinson and Howard Kendall.

A second worrying statistic for English coaches and managers is that more Israeli managers have managed a team in the group stages of the Champions League than English managers have. Ray Harford in 1995 was the first as Blackburn manager, followed by Phil Thompson (whilst Gerard Houllier was recovering from heart surgery), Sir Bobby Robson and Harry Redknapp.

If we look at the actual figures, there are 2,769 English coaches that hold either the UEFA B, A or Pro Coaching Licence – the highest coaching courses available. If we break this down, we find 1,759 coaches with the UEFA B Licence, 895 with the A-Licence and only 115 with the UEFA Pro Licence. When you consider that, in theory, a manager needs the UEFA Pro Licence to work in the Premiership, it means there are only 115 English coaches who could manage in the top flight of English football. Indeed, a significant proportion of these have no ambition to manage, but are happy coaching. This is a worrying figure.

If we compare these figures with our European rivals, it shows a major difference between the availability of quality coaching. Spain have 23,995 coaches holding a UEFA licence, 2,140 of which hold the Pro Licence – there are almost as many Pro Licence holders in Spain as there are UEFA qualified coaches of any level in England. Germany has 34,970 UEFA licensed coaches, France has 17,588 and Italy has 29,420. Even the Czech Republic has more coaches with the A or Pro Licence than England does.

These statistics are a little worrying. However, even more concerning is that England has more registered players than all the other European countries with the exception of Germany. In other words, England has more players and fewer coaches. England has 1 UEFA Licensed coach for every 812 registered players. Spain has 1 UEFA Licensed coach for every 17 players. Even Greece has 1 UEFA Licensed coach for every 135 players. Indeed, at the current rate of progress, it will take England over 120 years to even match Spain’s current number of Pro Licensed coaches.

Qualifications are clearly not the be all and end all of coaching ability. However, in order to be a manager in any top league in Europe, a manager must hold the UEFA Pro Licence. England is a slight exception here. Whilst it is supposedly a requirement, the Premiership has made a number of exceptions over the past few years. Gareth Southgate, Paul Ince and Glenn Roeder are all managers who have been given special dispensation to manage in the Premiership without this qualification. Unsurprisingly, none of them had much success.

So what exactly is the UEFA Pro Licence? It follows on from the UEFA A Licence, which focuses on training and coaching methods. However, the Pro Licence is more based on the managerial side of the game. It involves a series of modules on handling top-class players, using the latest technology, analysing opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, and dealing with players’ problems both on and off the pitch. An important part of it is a study visit to a major European club, often Real Madrid, AC Milan or Inter Milan, to get a structural and technical overview of the club.

Once a future manager has acquired the necessary qualifications, there is one further ingredient that should be gained before making the first step into the managerial hot seat. No amount of classroom teaching can replace actual experience. It is no surprise that the vast majority of Europe’s top managers went through periods during the early stages of their careers where they worked with youth teams or as assistant managers.

Let us take a couple of examples. Guus Hiddink is widely regarded as one of the most respected and successful coaches in football. He spent a number of years early on in his career working as assistant manager at both De Graafschap and PSV. Similarly, Louis Van Gaal spent five years as assistant at Ajax, learning under the vastly experienced Leo Beenhakker. Rafa Benitez, Marcello Lippi and Giovanni Trapattoni all began their careers with extended periods coaching in the youth team of Real Madrid, Sampdoria and AC Milan respectively.

Each of these has gained the necessary qualification and background knowledge, then followed it up with spell learning and gaining the experience working at big clubs under talented managers. If we compare this to recent managerial appointments in England, where we see the likes of Roy Keane, Paul Ince and Alan Shearer given the chance purely based on their playing reputations, it is unsurprising that they do not have the ability to succeed instantly. On the continent, we see former big-names, such as Dennis Bergkamp, undergoing an apprenticeship with the youth teams at Ajax, rather than moving straight into management.

There is an interesting different in outlook between Italy and England regarding managers getting sacked. In England, if a manager gets sacked from his job, he is regarded as a failure and his past failings will permanently be associated with him when he looks for future jobs, particularly amongst the fans. However, in Italy, it is not necessarily viewed as failure – rather it is often seen as gaining valuable experience that will stand him, and his future clubs, in better standing next time he gets an opportunity.

Despite all of this, English managers and coaches need opportunities to test themselves once they have gained the qualifications and experience. The argument that there are too many foreign managers in the Premiership is valid. Compared with other major European leagues, there are more foreign managers, particularly at the top clubs. There are only seven English managers in the Premiership, and only two of those managed teams that finished in the top half last season – Harry Redknapp and Sam Allardyce.

If we again compare this with elsewhere on the continent, we find that 15 out of 20 managers in La Liga are Spanish, and Manuel Pellegrini of Real Madrid was the only foreign coach to finish in the top half of the table. Similarly, in Germany, 15 out of 18 managers were German, with seven German coaches finishing in the top half. Italy has an even more impressive figure with only two foreign coaches amongst their 20 clubs.

This could suggest that there are fewer opportunities for prospective English managers than there are for their continental counterparts. Particularly amongst the very top teams, English managers struggle to find an opportunity. Chelsea have not had an English manager since Glenn Hoddle left back in 1996, having appointed eight consecutive foreign managers; Arsenal have not had an English manager since Don Howe in 1986, and Roy Hodgson is Liverpool’s first English manager in 12 years since Roy Evans left.

Even looking at the next tier of teams down, Manchester City are on their third new manager since the last Englishman, Stuart Pearce, was sacked; Aston Villa have had three non-English managers since Graham Taylor and John Gregory; Harry Redknapp at Tottenham follows three consecutive foreign managers.

There have been plenty of fairly sub-standard foreign managers that have been given the opportunity to manage in the Premiership at the expense of English manager. The likes of Jacques Santini, Christian Gross, Alain Perrin and Egil Olsen are hardly names that any Premiership club would be associated with now. It begs the question why clubs felt the need to bring in poor European managers rather than giving an opportunity to an up-and-coming English manager.

However, whilst it is possible to have some sympathy with the likes of Sam Allardyce, Alan Curbishley and Steve Bruce amongst other who claim they are overlooked due to their lack of trophies, whilst not being able to manage at clubs who are likely to win trophies, it raises another question. Why do English managers not venture abroad to get the opportunities?

After a poor period in charge of the national team, Steve McClaren headed to the continent to expand his horizons and look to rebuild his reputation. Two successful years at Twente, including one league title and reaching the Champions League qualifying stages, led to a move to German side, Wolfsburg. He now has experience working in different environments, and is one of the very few English managers still managing that can claim to have won a league title.

Few other English managers have made the move abroad. New Notts County manager, Craig Short, had a spell coaching and managing Ferencvaros in Hungary. Tony Adams is looking to resurrect his fledgling managerial career at Qabala in Azerbaijan, having spent time as an apprentice at Feyernoord. John Gregory is beginning his second season managing in the Israeli league.

However, the days when Englishmen were getting some of the top jobs in Europe are long gone. Terry Venables and Sir Bobby Robson both managed at Barcelona. Sir Bobby also had spells at PSV, Sporting and Porto. Roy Hodgson had spells at Inter Milan and Udinese amongst others. Even David Platt had a spell in charge of Serie A outfit, Sampdoria.

Clearly, English managers are not going to walk into any of these top jobs. However, Steve McClaren is proving a shining light as to what can be achieved if they take the risk. A move to one of the smaller European leagues – Holland, Belgium, Portugal amongst others – would potentially provide the opportunity to challenge for major domestic trophies and provide the chance to experience Champions League football.

However, it is not just the fault of managers. The English FA has hardly provided a great deal of help for prospective managers. The PFA has launched its own coaching department to try to turn today’s players into tomorrow’s coaches after becoming frustrated over the lack of leadership from the football authorities. The LMA was forced to turn to the corporate world for funding for support and training programmes for young coaches after recent proposals were rejected by the FA.

In Italy, managers are trained in an institution created solely for the purpose of developing new managers. Even in Australia, the Australian FA are investing in sending groups of coaches to Barcelona for a period of between six and twelve months to learn the methodology and philosophy behind the club. There are hopes that the new National Football Centre in Burton will be the facility where new coaches and managers can get the training they require, but this is still long behind schedule.

However, even if we can sort out the problem with a lack of coaches and managers, the development through the age groups of young footballers requires a complete overhaul.
In England, between the ages of 8 and 14, the crucial period for the development of potential future stars, academies average only two to four hours of contact time per week, and even demand that their players avoid playing for their own grassroots clubs or school teams as a precaution, whether that be against injury or conflicting training styles.

At the same age, in Germany, teams are training their youth players for around 18 hours a week. In Amsterdam, Ajax work with their players every single day. Indeed, in Brazil, over 3,000 young professionals live at their clubs, eating, sleeping, learning and training with their teammates every day of the week.

In France, the municipal government funds professional football coaches to work with all the junior clubs in their local area, enabling even those who are not part of academies to gain access to qualified coaching. In Spain, every town and village has a centrally-funded deportivo where young people can play football, basketball, tennis and volleyball under the supervision of highly trained coaches.

Contrast this with the situation in England where many local clubs are run by enthusiastic, but untrained parents and friends. Here, winning is everything, even at the expense of the children learning to play properly and having fun. It is hardly surprising that the technical development of the players is not provided.

However, this is not to say that schemes are not being set up to try to counter this problem. Watford’s youth academy under Nick Cox has become the envy of clubs throughout Europe, and has been visited by representatives of almost every Premiership club, as well as others from as far away as Valencia. Indeed, it received special praise from visitors from Ajax’s celebrated youth system for achieving even greater coaching time with the kids than they achieve.

They have integrated their academy players into a local school run by one of the club’s directors. This has the double bonus of securing greater time with the children, whilst saving on costs. As Nick Cox explains, “We pick the children up at around 7am and they then do all the normal subjects but also have scheduled coaching throughout the day – at times when they are fresh – then we drop them home at 7pm. We get to do about 15 hours of football with them a week, up to three times more than most other clubs in this country.”

Another key area that is being focussed on is the idea of ‘cross-training.’ In the Midlands, rival clubs, Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Brom have been worked together by training their 10- to 14-year olds together, exposing the children to a wider range of playing and coaching talent.

Once again, Watford have taken this one step further. The school not only caters for youth footballers, but also gifted young gymnasts, dancers, cricketers amongst others. By mixing sessions with these other groups and coaches, it provides a new outlook on certain aspects of training. For example, stretching sessions have been run in conjunction with the ballet dancers and gymnasts. As one of the young footballers explained, they were sceptical to begin with, but have discovered that it has improved their strength and flexibility immeasurably.

Watford are beginning to see the first generation of these children making a mark. They have reached the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup in each of the past two seasons, beating Liverpool before losing to eventual winners Chelsea last season. The crucial point is that, on average, their players all grew up only 12 miles away from Vicarage Road. In contrast, the Chelsea side that beat them contained six foreign players, all of whom had been brought over specially to join the Chelsea academy.

Whilst Watford is an isolated project at the moment, it helps to lay the foundations for future imitations and improvements that could be carried out by other clubs. However, this project as well as virtually all others that could be conceived will rely on the availability of quality coaches. Without them, no matter how good the theory behind the scheme is, it will struggle to succeed.

Quality coaches and managers are at a premium in the English game today, and England is lagging far behind its continental rivals. The FA need to start to implement new schemes to attract new coaches to embark in the courses that will bring them up to UEFA qualified levels, whilst encouraging the existing coaches and managers to take advantage of new opportunities, potentially abroad, to help their development and give them the chance to win trophies and experience managing at the top level of European competition.

If we have the coaches, good youth development can follow, and once again, England could start to produce the technically gifted players that can help to lead them back to the top levels of international competition once again. However, there is no quick fix – it will be a long path, but one that needs to be embarked upon with the utmost haste.


  1. great article keep it up

  2. Katie Sandler is a professional impact coach and consultant in the areas of learning and development firm that develop a fully custom impact retreat tailored for each client.


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