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"I wasn't allowed to join Arsenal"

Stephanie Pride talks to Howard Wilkinson about the future of youth coaching in England and possible regrets he has from an illustrious career

WSC Do you feel there is still a suspicion in this country of bringing the more technical aspects of coaching into the game?
Howard Wilkinson Yes, there’s a cultural attitude which is, if you like, anti-coaching, or against having an analytical attitude to sport, and it does make life difficult because it colours everyone’s attitude. It’s come out recently when we’ve had foreign players who start to talk about the differences and make negative comparisons with the preparation they’ve been used to. It comes out with foreign coaches coming in – people like Arsène Wenger. The sort of preparation that he employs I don’t think is that much different to the sort of preparation that others would employ, nor would it be fundamentally different to that which I would employ, but because Arsène’s come in and done it, it’s had a positive influence. People say “ah well, it’s come from abroad, it must be good, it’s worked there” – and I think that’s good.

It has been said that the approach of schools in this country to sports coaching generally is very different from that adopted on the continent. Is there anything you would criticise about our approach?
I have never, ever criticised schools for what they do for football and I wouldn’t do so because I don’t think they deserve it. What I have said is that our attitude is governed by the education system. We are one of the few nations in the world that includes sport on the curriculum and because of that we have developed a view of sport and of coaching which is different to the rest of the world.

We believed initially when sport was included on the cur­riculum that you weren’t there to be taught sport, sport was there to teach you. So you were taught the sport as far as the basics, but they worked on the assumption – wrong, as it turns out – that sport taught people desirable characteristics. And that moulded our attitude to coaching, because practising something, actually doing something for the elite, was frown­ed upon, whereas abroad if you were good at a sport and wanted to get better you went to a coach and the coach had respect – the coaching profession had respect. Those two attitudes as much as anything determined a lot of our approach to sport. That’s something we’re still paying for.

Do you consider your teaching background helped you as a coach?
Any situation where part of your responsibility is to get people to change or learn or adapt is a teaching situation, and I found that my teacher training and the degree course did have some benefits. I asked people for advice and the one piece of advice I really took to was the fact that the FA course in physical education and in teaching might be very helpful in terms of football coaching and management, and it was.

How much have you learnt from your visits overseas?
Little bits – but what you tend to find when you travel is a confirmation of the basic principles that anybody would recognise. It’s just the degree to which people go to make it work. Some countries might major down one avenue and others down another, but it’s interesting just to see what effect they’re having, where they’re putting the emphasis. Norway put a great deal of emphasis on a one-to-one mentoring approach. They’re very keen on “ownership” – of the player actually taking ownership of his performance from a very young age and asking him to set his goals, asking him to analyse his faults. I think that country has a lot to teach us in that respect.

Norway also has some sort of quota system limiting the number of foreign players in their domestic league. Is that helping them to develop their own players?

What Norway has – which is much better than a quota system – is an inherent resistance to using foreign players and foreign coaches. So the unwritten law in Norway is stronger than the written law. The Norwegians aspire to being the best national team in the world, all brought up in their own system; they aspire to a very strong club system full of good Norwegian players, and they go to great lengths to protect that. Not in any restrictive sense, but in the sense that if they’re going to look outside Norway they’ll do a lot of soul-searching before they do it, and they’ll ask themselves the question: well, if we’re having to do this is it a sign that our system is not working? So it’s a self-criticism, really.

Some people would argue that the number of overseas players in our league is good for the development of the national game.
There’s absolutely no doubt that English football now without Bergkamp, Jaap Stam, Zola and one or two others would be the poorer. But you could go to a match any Saturday and I chal­lenge you to answer the question at the end of it: would the country’s football be poorer without Mr X there? I think a lot of the time, maybe 50 per cent or 70 per cent of the time, you would find as good an English player. The situation at the moment is as much driven by economics as it is by choice – genuine choice.

I think where many people are missing the point in this country is not where the very talented players are concerned – they will come through. If you compare some of the very talented ones around at the mo­ment – like Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Francis Jeffers – I think you’d have to find some very strong arguments to go out and buy and put their progress at risk. It’s the others I worry about, the ones who are not such out­stand­ing talents at 16 or 17, but who may have dev­eloped into more than useful performers by the time they are 23, 24. That applies particularly in certain positions – centre-halves, goal­keepers, strikers. Those are the ones I worry about, because if you can’t see the potential in five or six years’ time of that 17-year-old, they may get missed – and there are more of those than the others.

Is there a case for every club having its own youth academy?

I think if you look at how many players the clubs need, it would be difficult to find arguments for more than 30 or 40 very strong youth establishments. Clubs can only employ so many players, so if you say clubs will only take on eight players a year, but you have enough youth development systems to be catering for 30 a year, then you’re selling them a false dream.

Graham Kelly recently suggested in WSC that the FA was “fundamentally compromised” between its duty to the wider game and looking after the interests of individual clubs. As someone who has been on both sides, how do you see the conflict?

Well, it is a conflict, and it’s one that Kevin Keegan has become very aware of. It’s a conflict that he at first found very difficult to deal with. At an international level, committees with foreign representatives from the professional game may have to make decisions which are in the best interests of international football and may not be in the best interests, as the clubs see it, of club football. That is a very serious conflict of interest.

One example that has been highlighted this season is the sheer number of games – European, international and domestic – that players are having to compete in. What was the thinking be­hind your proposal for more international matches to be played in the summer?
I put together a discussion document which put forward ideas meant to deal with this conflict. I think be­fore every attempt to bring some sense to the calendar had tried to mess about with the calendar as it is. What I was suggesting was that if we are to tackle the problem prop­erly we need to knock the house down and then, using the same bricks, build another one.

Making proposals is one thing. But how much real influence do you feel you have in your current position?
Since I took the job, I don’t think there’s been any serious pro­posal I’ve made which has not eventually been accepted. But you have to live in the real world and you have to have the patience to recognise what’s possible and in what time scale. We’re talking more marathon here than sprint. Undoubtedly these days, success at international level comes increasingly from taking a long-term view. If you look back over international football very definite trends do emerge, and the successful teams fall in line with those trends – trends that you find very hard to buck – and for that to happen you’ve got to start thinking long-term.

After the departure of Glenn Hoddle, Gianluca Vialli suggested it was the lack of continuity – and therefore confidence – in who was actually in charge that had led to some of England’s recent poor performances.
If you are an international footballer, if you are lucky, you may play eight games a season – that means five years to play 40 – which is only the equivalent of a Premier League season. Now if you are subject to two or three changes during that time in philosophy and attitude, then you can find it difficult to find a thread, naturally. So what the FA has got to do is find a thread, so that long-term there is a pattern. Then future England managers can slot into a position without feeling the need or the responsibility for changing the whole thing. This is working well. Now what I want to do is to put my colour, my feelings, my views into it, but with the elite.

Going back nearly 20 years to your time as coach at Notts County, your then boss Jimmy Sirrel famously described you as an England manager of the future. How do you look back on that comment now?
In many respects I wish he’d never said it, because some tag-lines stick and that was one that stuck. So without me ever expressing a desire to be the Eng­land manager, every time it came around people associated that com­ment with the England job and me. As I’ve said before, you get undressed, dissected, cut up, criticised, all because in such strange circumstances – that is, being chief coach at a club in the Second Division which gets promoted – Jimmy comes out with that statement.

When you were at Leeds, the chairman Leslie Silver effectively put a block on any ambitions you might have had to become England manager at that time. Did you ever want that job?

Being England manager, or having that as a serious career objective, is like going into politics and wanting to be prime minister. It may be an objective, but it’s got to be put into per­spective because it will be affected by all sorts of things – opportunity, timing, the public perception of you at a particular time. So what Leslie said about me was that I was very important to the club at the time – it almost reminds me of what they’re saying about Martin O’Neill now, they can’t imagine his club working well without him. Now, five years down the road, they might take a different view of that.

When you took over as England’s caretaker manager, you said you were aware that it would only be a temporary role, that the FA had another candidate in mind. Do you feel you were given any kind of chance to make an impact?

I wasn’t even caretaker manager. I find it quite funny that people still take that period seriously. To me it was almost: “Look after the car, I’ll be back in a week.” I think probably the biggest decision I ever made was assigning the rooming list!

How did it affect you when you found yourself criticised in the media, and even by your own fans at Leeds, for the style of play you were promoting?

It didn’t have a positive effect, but that’s life. With the criticism, it depends on who’s saying it. In six full seasons, we won two championships, qualified for Europe three times and the average crowd went up from something like 13,000 to 29,000. The club went from a turnover of less than £1 million to something like £18 million a year. Unsuccessful years? Come on. If people have a perception of you which is based on what they see on the TV of you personally, on how you talk or whatever, those superficial aspects of it, you just have to live with it.

With the benefit of hind­sight, do you feel that you stayed too long at Leeds?
The biggest career mis­take I’ve ever made was not pushing hard en­ough to be allowed to leave to join another club when I was offered it.

Which was club was it?
Arsenal. It was around the time Bruce Rioch was there. I was under con­tract at the time, it was the summer, the formal app­roach was made and re­jected. Looking back, I should have pushed from my end, but I also had a prob­lem because as chairman of the League Managers Association, managers had just gone through a horrendous time – there were Mark McGhee’s and Brian Little’s problems with their clubs. But, looking back, I should have pushed harder.

Looking ahead to Euro 2000 and with England’s chances of qualification still in the balance, do you think it would be a useful kick up the backside if they didn’t qualify?

If we did qualify and then in the summer did very well, I certainly wouldn’t like to think that would erase the memory of where we are at the moment. The lessons we are currently learning would not be heeded, because there’s absolutely no doubt that we do have an over-inflated view of what we expect. We do think we have a divine right to win in international football. We have this notion that there is somewhere in the world a magician who can transform England and turn them into World Cup winners in 48 hours.

In that respect I think some of the comments about Kevin’s appointment were disrespectful, because a lot of them seemed to be suggesting that all he was bringing to the job was some sort of short-term, quick-fix approach to things. But what that seems to me to indicate is their underlying point of view, which is that is what it needs. I think we’ve got to the stage now where people are realising that that’s not all that’s needed. Whoever gets the job, probably 80 per cent of the situation which he gets is prescribed. I could sit down and think of England’s 40 players for 2006 right now.

From WSC 154 December 1999. What was happening this month

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