Top coaches and coaching students from across Europe gained valuable insight from Sir Alex Ferguson this week as part of UEFA’s latest Pro Licence student exchange programme.
The legendary Scot, who guided Manchester United to two UEFA Champions Leagues and a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, the latter which he also won with Aberdeen, shared his experiences with Pro Licence students studying with national associations in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Poland and the Republic of Ireland.
“I really have a great affection for people who are learning the game and want to be coaches and managers,” Ferguson said.
“I started [managing] at 32 years of age, and, of course, in the time from there on, you do learn. But I honestly would say that going into management at 32, there were a couple of things that I knew that were useful: one, I could make a decision; two, I played the game; and three, I had my coaching [qualifications].
“Now, these things are really important. Other things, I developed by the learning process if you give it time, particularly communication. I think when you’re in charge of a football team, you’re not just in charge of 11 players on the pitch.”
UEFA’s pivotal role in developing coaches
Ferguson is a believer in exchanging ideas and information, and remains a keen reader, sharing with the students some titles he found inspirational while on his coaching journey. He also highlighted the value of UEFA’s work in coach education.
“I think that it’s really important that coaches go through all the courses they can, even the refresher courses and keep attending them, because there’s always something, little bits, you learn all the way down,” he said.
“UEFA has to lead the way in terms of the directions of coaches and the avenues they can afford and offer them to improve themselves as coaches. And I think it’ll always be UEFA that is the most important organisation in terms of creating the right platforms for young people to do well.”
What is the UEFA pro licence student exchange programme?
The exchange programme brings together Pro Licence students from different footballing backgrounds for discussion and debate, exchanging of views and practical training sessions.
Typically taking place three to four times a year at UEFA’s HQ in Nyon, the programme has moved online since the COVID-19 pandemic, with discussions and presentations including leadership, decision-making, how to deal with crisis situations, mental strength and dealing with pressure and the human skills required to handle media, players and supporter expectations.
Led by their national association coach education directors, students also learn from experienced frontline coaches, such as Ferguson, as well as UEFA’s team of technical instructors, Packie Bonner, Jim Fleeting, Werner Mickler, Dany Ryser and Howard Wilkinson.
Sharing ideas and experiences
Other speakers at the online event included Spain’s Aitor Karanka and Dutchman Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
They were able to share their own stories of life as a top-level coach in a high-pressure environment, juggling the requirements of achieving success on the pitch while maintaining harmony off it.
Karanka, who gained his Pro Licence following retirement in 2008, lifted three Champions Leagues as a player, and worked as an assistant to José Mourinho before taking the reins at Middlesbrough, where he achieved promotion to England’s Premier League, Nottingham Forest and Birmingham City.
Van Bronckhorst, a Champions League winner in 2006, was assistant for four years at hometown club Feyenoord for four years before becoming head coach in 2015, a position he held for four years, leading them to a first Eredivisie championship in 18 years. He personally attended the Pro Licence Student Exchange course at UEFA HQ in 2013, while studying for his Pro Licence.
Aitor Karanka on taking the UEFA Pro Licence and transitioning from a player to a head coach
“As an ex-player, you think ‘what are they going to teach us? I know everything’.
“But from the first class, you start to analyse the game in a different way. I think it’s one of the keys to try to change your mentality as soon as possible. You are not a player anymore and you need to change.
“As a player you go to the changing room and you are on your own, but as a coach you have all the players, the coaches, the medical staff and kit men. They are all important and you have to manage all of them.”
What does the UEFA Pro Diploma course involve?
As UEFA’s highest coaching qualification, the Pro Licence offers students the final steps in the journey towards becoming a head coach. By being able to exchange ideas with their fellow learners and counterparts from other associations, they benefit hugely from the exchange programme.
Former Manchester United defender John O’ Shea, who earnt more than 100 caps with Ireland, and ex-Chelsea goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini are among those studying for their Pro Licence with the Football Association of Ireland (FAI).
UEFA Pro Licence student, John O’Shea:
“I hope the Pro Licence can give the guidance and pathway, from the shared learning from my fellow pro licence participants and also the excellent guest speakers we have had so far and the advice from our mentors that will me allow me to go into my next role in football with a broader knowledge of what it takes to become successful and the challenges I will face.
“Having the chance to listen and question one of the most successful managers of all time in Sir Alex was, as always, an amazing learning opportunity for the students. I’m fortunate that I can still speak to ‘The Boss’ for advice because he was a huge part in my playing career and we shared some great success. His approach to building successful teams and his ideas for self-improvement will be around for a long time to come.
“It’s hugely important that UEFA offers educational opportunities for everyone in the football family that wants to improve and continue their interest in lifelong learning. With so many avenues in the industry to get work it’s vital that UEFA lead the way and make the football community aware of the courses they offer and they can contribute to them improving their own national associations or domestic leagues.
“The experience I have gained so far from UEFA education has been important for me to meet some amazing people from across the football world, learning and sharing memories and experiences from our careers but also getting good contacts that will be helpful to us in the future, while improving different skills outside of the pitch.”
UEFA Pro Licence student, Carlo Cudicini:
“This is the highest education you can get as a coach. Already, in terms of speakers, it has been very good to hear about other coaches’ experience at different stages of their career, both with the FAI and UEFA this past week.
“At the end of this journey, which lasts two years, I would like to have no questions left remaining. When I get my Pro Licence, I want to feel like I am fully prepared. You can never know everything, you keep learning and developing, but I will be clear in my knowledge and so far it has been a good journey.
“To exchange ideas and experience is crucial, and it’s fundamental that UEFA is involved. They have great educators and technical analysis, so the value is undeniable. I would love to be able to spend more time exchanging ideas and discussing things with coaches from other federations.”
It is not just former male players on the course, however. Ioulia Panayiotou, a coach with the Cyprus Women’s Under-19 team, has also taken important lessons from the programme to help further her career, which began in 1999.
“I learnt to read and analyse the game much better than before,” she explains. “I can design my training sessions better – to teach my team how to attack, to build up the play from the goalkeeper or be more direct and use my wingers.”
Recent years have seen an increase in female coaches obtaining UEFA coaching licences, a positive trend that Panayiotou is keen to see continue.
“Football is the king of sports but it is not only for men – we have to push female players to take up coaching,” she says. “UEFA coaching licences give you more experience, the chance to develop your ideas and speak with other coaches, and they teach you things you didn’t know. Ultimately, you can train your team better than before.”
Which other UEFA coaching licences are available?