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Oct 7, 2013

Counting the cost of coaching

All week long, ESPN FC explores England's dwindling number of homegrown stars in the Premier League with a series of features that explain the problem, the current climate and the way forward.

Everyone remembers their first football coach. Mine was a chap called Graham Carr (not the Francophile Newcastle scout), who was the dad of our goalkeeper at Lymm Rovers.

Graham had a silver crop of hair like Marcello Lippi, but that was where the similarity ended. He had a good heart -- I'm not so sure about his lungs, as he always had a cigarette in hand -- but his old-school approach would definitely be frowned upon these days. Telling a bunch of 9-year-olds that we had been "f---ing useless" as we wolfed down our half-time oranges was, on reflection, a touch questionable.

From grassroots to the elite level, coaches shape the technical ability and temperament of footballers the world over. In England, concerns about the perceived declining standard of young players have seen the finger of blame pointed at coaches. Plenty of footballers possess natural talent, but it is the way that ability is harnessed by a coach that can turn them from promising teen to accomplished professional and, potentially, player of global renown.

The belief that England lacks coaching quality and depth appears to be backed up when figures elsewhere in Europe are examined. England has just 1,178 coaches at UEFA "A" level, compared with 12,720 in Spain and 5,500 in Germany. At "Pro" Licence level, England has 203 coaches, Spain 2,140 and Germany more than 1,000. So what is behind this notable discrepancy?

Manchester City youth and community coach Lee Mannion took his first step on the ladder when he earned his FA Level 1 badge as a 17-year-old. Now 25, Mannion holds a number of FA Youth Awards -- created by the FA in 2009 and geared towards age-specific coaching -- and a UEFA B License. Once an aspiring professional as a trainee at Crewe, he faced one of football's most familiar stories when he was released at the age of 18. Fortunately, he had already received his coaching grounding at a club famed for its sporting conscience.

"Every young lad wants to be a professional footballer so, when that dream doesn't come true, becoming a coach is the next best thing," Mannion tells ESPN. "At Crewe, they are always readying you for your next step in football in case you don't make it as a player, and I did my first coaching badges at 17. Crewe also put me through my Level 2 and Level 3 [the UEFA B qualification].

"If you look at their academy now, the majority of coaches were once academy players. The head of the youth team, James Collins, used to play for Crewe, and Neil Critchley, who's just left to become the youth team manager at Liverpool, played for Crewe. I don't think any clubs are as prolific at producing coaches as Crewe. Clubs do it, and obviously there are a lot of ex-pros who have returned to their former club, but I think the way Crewe go about it is unique."

For those with ambitions to be a coach but without the close links to a set-up as supportive as Crewe's, progression can be more problematic. If a player is released at 14 or 15 and then wants to become a coach when they've finished secondary education, or if a young boy or girl is not a talented player but is keen to pursue a career in football, the cost is prohibitive.

The basic FA Level 1 course is £150, while Level 2 rises to £340. Then comes a steep increase. The standard cost of a UEFA "B" License -- a prerequisite to work at a professional club's academy -- is £990, and it can cost as much as £2,450. In Germany, the cost is €430; in Spain it is €1,100. For the UEFA "A" License, an English coach could pay a maximum of £5,820 -- but in Germany it is €530 and in Spain €1,200. Being a member of the FA's Licensed Coaches' Club (free to join for anyone with a basic Level 1 qualification) brings the cost down by 25 percent but the prices are significantly higher than on the continent and unquestionably difficult for the average person to afford, unless sponsored by a club.

"I'm lucky that the clubs I've been affiliated with have always footed the bill for my coaching courses," Mannion explains. "For someone who has just left school and works part-time, to get qualified to the level I am would cost thousands of pounds -- I'm sure there are plenty of potential coaches out there who simply can't afford the courses. I think the FA could probably do more for them.

"A good route to go down is to try to join a club's coaching in the community initiative -- at Manchester City we run free FA Level 1 courses for people in the local area so we are qualifying 20-odd coaches at a time. They get their first step on the coaching ladder and we can then deploy them in the community."

At grassroots level, particularly with younger age groups, the UEFA "B" and "A" licenses do not actually hold as much relevance. Recognising this, the FA launched its Youth Awards, and they have proved a welcome addition to the FA coaching syllabus in professional clubs' soccer schools and academies.

Mannion believes that should the cost be reduced -- the cheapest combined price of all three modules is around £1,500 -- to better accommodate grassroots coaches, it could be a major breakthrough.

"In grassroots football, coaches are so often just a dad who has taken their son along to a club and someone has said: 'Do you mind being the manager, because we don't have one?'. They are all well-meaning people but, without actual coaching badges, their players will never get the education and development they need.

"If it is your hobby with your son's team on a Tuesday night, you are not going to go and spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds getting a qualification. Don't get me wrong, some grassroots clubs have FA-qualified coaches coaching every age group, but there are so many clubs where the coaches can't afford to do their badges. If more coaches took the Youth Awards, we'd see a vast improvement in the standard of coaching."

Does the lack of qualified coaches at grassroots level actually matter? It could be suggested that more players such as Dwight Gayle and Chris Smalling -- players who have enjoyed meteoric rises from non-league football to the Premier League -- could emerge should the quality of grassroots coaching improve. But that appears an idealistic view, because most promising players are now snapped up by professional clubs at an increasingly tender age. For Mannion, who looks after under-sixes, under-sevens and under-eights, there is no doubt that, in the current climate, a professional club's environment is the best place for youngsters to flourish.

"As much as I love grassroots football, and it is of course the heart of the English game, the lack of quality coaches and the general environment is not conducive to good development," he says. "I coached my little brother's Sunday League team all the way up from under-10s to under-16s and some of the things you see on a Sunday morning at the park when there are kids playing are frightening, really.

"The parents and the manager shouting at the ref, shouting at the players, compared to what the academy looks like -- the parents aren't allowed to shout, no one gives any abuse to the ref, the pitches are well-maintained. I think grassroots is still a long way from that. I've heard stories that kids at other academies have been let go because their dads were too abusive towards referees.

"I understand people's reservations about clubs like Man City taking on kids so young, but the most important thing is that it's fantastic for the children. They are getting a very high standard of coaching from a young age, and I think a lot of the skills and the techniques are embedded at that age -- not to mention the attitude -- that's when they are really starting to learn. They are being taught fundamental skills from top coaches at an early age rather than going to sessions where, as much as grassroots coaches do a good job, they don't educate to the same level."

Until major developments in grassroots coaching come to fruition, the fate of young English footballers rests firmly in the hands of the professional clubs. There is a responsibility -- notably with the Premier League clubs because of their financial muscle -- to invest in training coaches. Mannion has been just one recipient of the largesse of Manchester City's wealthy Abu Dhabi backers and believes the oft-lamented increase in the number of foreign owners could hold the key to improving English football's development.

"City have been producing plenty of good English players recently -- Micah Richards, Nedum Onuoha and Daniel Sturridge have come through in the past decade -- but the changes that have gone on and are still going on at the club have been massive," he says. "We've got a brand-new academy [the £120 million Etihad Campus] that will be up and running next year, which will be an unbelievable facility for the young people to come in and train. City are at the forefront of helping and developing young coaches and players.

"As far as I can see, the owners haven't just come in and bought players for the first team, they're coming in and developing a whole new academy, a facility that's costing them hundreds of millions of pounds to help young lads based in the Manchester and the north-west to develop. In years to come, I think City will have a lot of young English players breaking into their first team, purely because of the way the owners have gone about putting money into that.

"A lot of foreign owners just come in, buy all the best players for the first team, and that's it. But City's owners are here for the long haul, and they want to see young English players playing for Man City."

Neither the FA nor the Premier League are burying their heads in the sand on the issue of coach development -- both understand the importance of improving standards of coaching and are actively taking steps to achieve it.

The FA may not boast as many UEFA "Pro" and "A" License coaches as its German and Spanish counterparts, and the issue of cost remains contentious, but the organisation does have one of the most extensive education programmes in world football, about which there is much to be admired. Many of the key changes have only taken place since the Future Game initiative, with a wider range of courses and an increased focus on grassroots, was rolled out in 2010. The success of this cannot be accurately measured for some years to come.

For Premier League clubs, heavy investment is being made in coach development on both an internal and community level. Many of the country's top sides also now have positive coaching role models. While a stellar playing career was once seen as a direct ticket to the top of the coaching pyramid, the likes of David Moyes and Brendan Rodgers have shown that the absence of one is no longer a barrier to success.

There is much to be optimistic about and one day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, the Graham Carrs of the coaching world will be truly regarded as a relic of bygone days.

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