Sean Barnes dreamed of becoming a Premier League manager and so signed up for an FA coaching course. But his new career path has reached a hurdle and it's not due to lack of time or inclination

Last summer I went through a personal crisis and bought an unnecessarily large television, a train ticket from the 1930s, searched everywhere for a white leather jacket and resolved to learn to play the harmonica.

Another one of my petty attempts to give meaning to my life saw me undertake an FA coaching course and step onto the first rung of the ladder that would surely lead to me one day becoming the English Mourinho. I was young(ish), bright, enthusiastic and seemed to get on well with kids.

The FA were – and still are – desperate for new coaches. Coaches just like me! I would get the badges, volunteer at a local club and rise up through the ranks until I became a manager Rafael Benítez deemed important enough to play mind games with. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

The FA want as open a system as possible so as to encourage wider participation in football coaching. This is for equality and diversity reasons as well as to increase the numbers of professional coaches in England. However, because the first step is always the local clubs, many of whom are still extremely tight-knit and often relatively parochial organisations, the scope for real inclusion is rare. For many coaches, unless you know someone involved heavily in a club or are a father of one of the kids, clubs demand an FA Level Two coaching certificate before giving any responsibility. This course is almost impossible to pass if you don’t have a club to coach, so you have to find one of the few clubs who are genuinely open to new, enthusiastic coaches.

I passed my Level One Certificate, a very basic but ultimately solid grounding in coaching, and then got work experience with a Premier League club’s Football in the Community scheme working with children with behavioural problems. On my first morning I was hit in the balls with a hockey stick by a child the age of Brooklyn Beckham but built like John Prescott and generally received more abuse than Margaret Thatcher would get at a dominatrix convention in a Durham pit village. But it was all worth it, because one day I would be lambasting my club’s owners in the press in order to increase my transfer budget and alert bigger clubs to my availability. The dream was still on. But getting to the next stage would be harder than I thought.

There is no doubt that coaching in England needs a major forward push. However, the FA’s current strategy appears to involve encouraging as many people as possible to take the introductory courses, of which there are only two or three a year at most county FAs. They are also not doing enough to encourage or persuade grassroot clubs to take on inexperienced coaches.

The FA’s Discussion Document for Coaching 2008-2012, Developing World Class Coaches and Players, states: “We must confidently lead and serve the whole football family and implement a coaching plan of the highest quality.” The section headed Making It Happen doesn’t start until 22 pages in. The document shows that as of 2008 there were 1,759 UEFA B coaches in England. In Spain there were 9,135, in Italy 27,430, and in Germany 28,400. Spain’s relatively poor score is, as it happens, down to their high standards of coaching and an insistence on the UEFA A badge. Spain has more than twice the amount of A coaches as any of the above countries with 12,720. England has 895.

There is a paradox here. The importance attached to properly trained coaches means clubs are unwilling to offer the real responsibility and scope for development that an amateur coach needs. I had my Level One certificate, work experience with a Premier League club and the bruises to prove it. But I could not find a single local club that was happy with me – a complete outsider – coming in and coaching their kids to complete my Level Two. Twice I was asked if I could drive kids to matches but that wasn’t really what I was looking for and I can’t drive.

I decided to approach local schools but at most of these I was told that I would have no chance without classroom teaching experience. One secretary with a voice like a fire in a pet shop even told me they already had a football team, as if I was a 19th century British ex-pat trying to transport the game to South America for the first time, and not just wanting to come along and help. In the FA’s discussion document Trevor Brooking says: “In terms of coaching, there is a massive knowledge gap on how best to coach young players.” From my experience there is also a huge knowledge gap on how best to coach young coaches. The FA needs to be providing more opportunities for people outside of the professional game to advance within it.

I never did find a white leather jacket I was pleased with. I have yet to pick up a harmonica and I lost the 1930s train ticket because it was so bloody small. I’m certainly not going to give up on coaching yet, but as I’m currently spending my evenings and weekends not doing it, it turns out the unnecessarily large TV may not be that unnecessarily large after all.

From WSC 279 May 2010

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