FEATURE | Inside the UEFA Pro Licence course
Walk into the room and it’s difficult not to feel intimidated.
In one corner is the Republic of Ireland’s record caps & goals holder sitting next to a two-time Premier League champion who didn’t have a bad international career either. As the two old friends catch up, others start to filter in.
It’s hard not to judge a book by its cover and in this room they are all bestsellers. There are 359 senior international caps spread out amongst the group, while the non-internationals have reached such dizzying heights at other levels that it’s enough to make one feel that they haven’t achieved anything in their own lives compared to these men.
Yet, they are all nervous. This is the first day of school and they are unsure of what lies ahead. It is the opening of the UEFA Pro Licence course and they know that they are about to plunge into a shark tank – forced outside of their comfort zone in order to pass the ultimate test, at least in coaching circles.
That sense of trepidation, of second-guessing yourself, is one that all coaches wrestle with. You may be standing on an astro-turf pitch on a Thursday night talking to a gaggle of eight-year-olds who are more interested in making shadow puppets under the beam of the floodlights than learning about penetrating passes, or you could be standing in the middle of a dimly-lit dressing room before a Cup Final ready to deliver the speech that kept you up all night; yet you will hear the same thought running your head: Don’t mess this up!
It was easy being part of a team. Now the course participants are front and centre tasked with leading the team. Of course, this is where they have long dreamed to be – well, not quite in a hotel conference room but on the path to earning the highest coaching qualification in European football. This is the Pro Licence and only the best coaches belong here.
“I was very nervous that I wouldn’t be up to the standard as I had completed my UEFA A Licence in 2009 and although I had completed my UEFA A Goalkeeping Diploma in 2015 I still felt maybe I would be the weakest on the course,” admitted Ger Dunne, who completed the course in 2018.
The current Head of Performance Analysis in the Football Association of Ireland could have forewarned the Class of 2020. He could have told them to trust in their ability, to be open-minded, and to remember to charge your laptop! Dunne may not have reached the heights as a professional player that some of the other participants did but that doesn’t matter on this course. The Pro Licence is an equal level, where everyone is a coach aspiring to be the best that they can be.
“Some people will feel that some of the people on the course were only there because they were fast-tracked by FAI, that the Association wanted him on the course. But that wasn’t the case at all,” stated Ger O’Brien, who was part of that 2020 group and is now Director of Football at St Patrick’s Athletic.
“They (former international players) have to earn their stripes just as much as the other coaches. So it was brilliant to be in that environment because everyone knew where they stood. We were all equal.”
Designed by UEFA, European football’s governing body, the Pro Licence course is stretched over a two-year period and is much more than an audition to find the next Mike Bassett. It is about management, strategy, finance, media, psychology, leadership, performance analysis, communication, and a lot more than a football manager will ever be given credit for knowing.
The course is shaped by the FAI Coach Education Department, which is led by Niall O’Regan and assisted by Craig Sexton, and it is their job to make everything run smoothly. The objective is to ensure that each of the participants learns how to produce insightful presentations that explains their footballing philosophy, understands how to engage with different personnel within a club or organisation, and masters the role of becoming the one person who needs to know all of the answers. It’s clear that they can put on a coaching practice – they learned that on their UEFA B Licence course – this is about everything else.
Guidance is never in short supply on the course. Whether it comes from the guest speakers rolled in, from the one-on-one feedback sessions with the expert Coach Educators, or from a club visit abroad, there is always someone willing to help the course participants. It’s up to them how much they soak in.
Everyone is different. The learning experience will not be the same for each participant. Nor will be their objectives. The criteria and certification may have funnelled them all together to form one group, but their career paths are bound to stray far apart due to the decision-making that their ambition will ultimately fuel.
Eileen Gleeson completed the course in 2015 and she knew that her journey was always going to be quite different to that of her peers. That, largely, came from her background working in the Women’s National League but also from what she wanted to achieve from the course.
“For me, personally completing the Pro Licence felt like a natural progression on my coaching pathway,” said Gleeson.
“Given that I was coming from an 'amateur' league set-up, I was particularly interested in learning about the financial aspects of the game, for example dealing with player contracts. Additionally, I was hoping to gain more insight into dealing with the media.”
Now working as Assistant Coach with the Ireland Women’s Senior Team, Gleeson has continued her learning by completing a MSC in Coaching & Exercise Science and, recently, a PHD in Phenomenal Decision-making in Elite Soccer. Motivated by self-improvement, she feels that the Pro Licence taught her the importance of being critically analytical of your own performance.
There is a perception that all participants want to use the Pro Licence as a gateway to managing at the professional level, but, again, everyone will take something different from it.
O’Brien takes up that point by saying: “Not every person who goes on the Pro Licence course has to be a manager, or has to be a success or is guaranteed longevity. They might find themselves in a different role, look at Trevor Croly who was a manager at Shamrock Rovers and is now a successful Assistant Manager at Bohemians and one of the best coaches in the country.
“That’s not to say that I don’t want to be a manager in the future, but I have a great role at St Pat’s right now and I feel it is a role that can expand. I would consider myself very young in terms of having completed the Pro Licence. It may be the final destination on the coaching pathway but I feel that I’m only at the beginning of my coaching career – whether that is on pitch or as a Director I’m not sure, opportunities will determine that.”
Whatever path does open up in front of the participants, they will at least have had a grounding in what to expect courtesy of the range of topics & guest speakers on the course. For the 2020 group, they sat before Ireland managers Stephen Kenny and Mick McCarthy, Netherlands Assistant Manager Dwight Lodeweges, former Leeds United Managers Howard Wilkinson and Thomas Christiansen, UEFA’s Frank Ludolph and Packie Bonner, and West Ham United Assistant Manager Alan Irvine, to name just a few.
Scribbled in their notepads were key points on decision-making, practical coaching, match-fixing awareness, the role of a Goalkeeping Coach, intercultural communications, competencies of a professional coach, social media awareness, and how to develop a winning mentality. It is a lot to take in but how it is delivered is through reality-based learning and the participants quickly develop a bond to share the experience.
Whether they were split into smaller groups to work on specific assignments or collectively taking everything in, each of the participants leaned on the person next to them for advice, insight & feedback.
“The other participants on the course were a massive help to me both in the micro groups and the larger group in pushing me to my limits,” revealed Dunne, who works as lead analyst with the Ireland Men’s Senior Team.
Seeing how others actually put the Pro Licence into practice on a day-to-day basis proved to be another massive learning for the group. There were visits to SC Heerenveen, Royale Union Saint-Gilliose, Middlesbrough, Celtic, and UEFA HQ, with each trip proving to be unique in its own right.
To sum up those excursions, O’Brien quipped: “It shows you how much work is needed to be at the top level.”
O’Brien may just as well have been referring to the Pro Licence course in general considering all that it packs into a two-year cycle. But the participants wouldn’t have it any other way.
FAI UEFA Pro Licence Coaches
2009: Paul Ashworth, Packie Bonner, Joe Boyle, Paul Clement, Tony Cousins, Pat Dolan, Paul Doolin, Pat Fenlon, John Gill, Don Givens, Brian Kerr, Mike Kerley, Noel King, Pete Mahon, Tony Mannion, Alan Mathews, John McDonnell, Noel O'Reilly
2011: Bobby Browne, Michael Browne, Liam Buckley, Paul Cook, Kenny Cunningham, John Devine, Tommy Dunne, Curtis Fleming, Eddie Gormley, Steve Harrison, Jeff Kenna, Harry McCue, Brendan Place, Damien Richardson, Martin Russell
2013: John Brennan, Gerry Carr, Mick Cooke, Trevor Croly, Declan Devine, Adrian Fitzpatrick, John Glynn, Shane Keegan, Harry Kenny, Keith Long, Dave Mackey, Paul O'Brien, Tom O'Connor, Pat Scully
2015: Stuart Ashton, John Caulfield, Dave Connell, Jason Donohue, Eileen Gleeson, Tommy Griffin, Niall Harrison, Owen Heary, Ollie Horgan, Robbie Horgan, Peter Hutton, Tom Mohan, Mick Neville, Colin O'Brien, Don O'Riordan, Sue Ronan, Leo Tierney
2018: Tommy Barrett, Stephen Bradley, Adrian Carberry, Jim Crawford, Gary Cronin, Ger Dunne, Stephen Henderson, Frank Kelleher, Gerard Nash, Graham O'Hanlon, Colin O'Neill, Paul Osam, Alan Reynolds, Greg Yelverton
2020: John Andrews, Keith Andrews, Jim Brennan, John Cotter, Damien Duff, Neale Fenn, Paul Hegarty, Robbie Keane, Paddy McCarthy, Kevin Maher, Ger O'Brien, William O'Connor, Vinny Perth, Andy Reid, Stephen Rice, Dave Rogers, Szilard Suto, Srdjan Tufegdzic
2022: Tim Clancy, Dan Connor, Carlo Cudicini, Kevin Doherty, Daire Doyle, Tom Elmes, Anthony Hayes, Ruairdhi Higgins, Denis Hyland, Graham Kelly, Andy Keogh, Ian Morris, Alan Murphy, John O’Shea, Sean O’Shea, Aidan Price, Matthew Ross, John Russell, Ian Ryan, James Scott
*2020 class have yet to graduate
**2022 class are just beginning
Written by Gareth Maher