Climbing the Coaching Ladder

Eighteen years ago I stepped into a small windowless room for a careers interview at the local college. The lady tasked with advising me asked about my future aspirations. “I want to be a football coach or a sports journalist,” I bullishly told her. “They are both competitive fields and your expected grades aren’t good enough for journalism,” was the cold and damning reply of someone who clearly shouldn’t be working in an education establishment. One sentence from person I’d never met, and haven’t seen since, crushed my dreams. Perhaps a more confident person would’ve been able to deal with it, throwing caution to the wind and applying anyway, but instead I sheepishly selected three uninspiring subjects and dropped out after less than a year. When my GCSE results came out it transpired that my grades were better than expected, and good enough to get me on my chosen courses, but by then it was too late. The irony is that I’m now writing about football, and coaching at grassroots level, coming full circle and striving to squeeze both of my passions into a busy life that includes a full-time job and a family.

In June 2017, after one year managing an adult Sunday League team, I signed up to take the FA Level One coaching badge. There are currently approximately 300,000 level one coaches in Britain, with over 15,000 taking the course each year. Everything I’d heard about the course pointed to an easy box-ticking exercise, one that was harder fail than it was to pass. Still, as I pulled into the car park on day one I had a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. What if I’m out of my depth? What if everyone is much more knowledgeable than me and I get laughed out of the building?

The opposite couldn’t have been truer. The diverse group – containing male, female, young, old, and people from various ethnic backgrounds – was fantastic. Everyone gelled, helped each other out and made the sessions pleasurable, something which was needed after a long day at work. The coach coordinator, Ciaran, was superb and made the classes – a mixture of theory and outdoor sessions on the grass – fun but informative. Ciaran informed us that the course, along with the level two qualification, had been revamped in late 2016 and is now encouraging budding coaches to take more initiative rather than just selecting drills – or practices as they are now called – from a dusty old directory.

Despite my initial trepidation I was happy to receive good feedback on my assignments and my confidence grew as the course progressed. Even with 15 years in grassroots football under my belt I emerged from the course feeling invigorated, and since returning to my team I’ve felt like a more assertive and confident coach, albeit one still with plenty to learn.

It appears, however, that not everyone shares the same enthusiasm for the entry level coaching badges. I was trawling Twitter one day when I stumbled upon a conversation about coaching badges involving former professional footballer, and current manager of ninth-tier Bridlington Town, Curtis Woodhouse. I remarked positively that I’d enjoyed the level one course and learned a lot in the process, despite my previous experience in grassroots and self-perception that I know the game fairly well. “If you learned a lot doing your level one then you never knew much to start with” was Woodhouse’s opening retort. “Level one you learn to pump a ball up and tie laces,” he continued, a needless remark to a novice coach. Not rising to the bait, I kept a cool head and responded positively once again and when all else failed, Woodhouse tediously trotted out the “I played professionally for a decade FFS” line, reminding us all, in case we’d forgotten, who exactly he was.

I understood his bitterness was perhaps more to do with the system, which forces ex-pros to jump through hoops and tick boxes despite their experience. His opinion, which perhaps has some merit, is that you can’t buy or teach the experience and knowledge of ex-pros, no matter how much time young coaches spend in the classroom or out on the training pitch. However, a great player does not always make a great coach. Some of the most revered and decorated coaches in today’s Premier League – Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger for example – had modest playing careers. On the flip side, arguably the greatest player of time, Diego Maradona, has so far made a complete hash of his managerial career. One plus for ex-pros seeking a career in coaching is that they receive generous discounts on their badges, with the aim clearly to encourage them to stay in the game and harness their expertise. However, this punishes grassroots coaches, who nine times out of ten won’t have the same financial background as former professional footballers.

All being well, next year I’m hoping to continue on the pathway and complete the level two qualification which, as to be expected, is a little more arduous and time-consuming although eminently doable, than the entry level one badge. The cost for the level two is reasonable, averaging £320 in England depending on the county. The FA’s level three qualification, or UEFA B license, costs roughly £700 depending on which county you choose to take it in, but after that the costs become a little more prohibitive. This is a sad indictment on a sport which has never been richer. The UEFA A license costs the best part of three grand in the UK, and herein lies the problem. There are more than ten times the amount of coaches in Spain holding the UEFA A and Pro licenses than there are in England. Over in Germany, the cost of the UEFA A license is, on average, just €800.

I’m sure it’s more complex and nuanced than simply counting which country has the most qualified coaches, but surely there is correlation between that and the recent success of Spain and Germany at the highest level of international football. England’s triumphs at youth level in the summer of 2017 shows that something is being done right, but ultimately what matters most is how the national team perform at senior level. Since 1966 England have reached four World Cup quarter-finals whereas Spain and Germany have won the tournament outright five times between them. Revamping the courses is a great start but reducing the cost could encourage the next generation of coaches to climb on the ladder and try to make a career in football.

By Dan Williamson

First published in STAND #23. The landmark 25th issue is out now!

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