Day five of the UEFA 'A' licence (part 2) involved three lectures. Alfie Wylie, coach of the Northern Ireland senior women's team and a UEFA Pro licence coach, delivered the first lecture, entitled, 'Preparing the squad and backroom staff for international football'.
While the routines that the Irish FA go through in preparing teams for international football are very similar to what I am used to in Canada, I was floored by the lack of funding provided for their women's program in general. The entire program is only given £500,000 ($800,000) per year, with £280,000 ($450,000) going to the senior women's team.
Contrast that with the millions of dollars per year that the top countries in the women's game receive from their federations (and in terms of funding, you can put Canada in that tier), and one begins to understand the enormity of the challenge faced by the Irish FA. It simply isn't possible to compete at the international level when you don't have the resources needed for adequate training camps and competitions.
The players in the women's program in Northern Ireland do not receive any funding whatsoever. In fact, they don't even get their expenses reimbursed. To attend a training camp or competition, they must take unpaid leave from their jobs or, for players who are currently in university, bring their books along with them and hope not to fall too far behind in their studies.
It really is a stark contrast to what we have come to know as 'international football'.
Dr. Andrea McNeilly, a lecturer in Sport and Exercise Nutrition at the University of Ulster, delivered the second lecture of the day, entitled 'Nutrition and healthy eating for football'.
The depth to which an expert like McNeilly goes in discussing her area of specialty simply cannot be expressed in words. She was able to answer every question the group could throw at her, as easily as if we were asking her the colour of grass. That level of knowledge about an area so essential to the performance of athletes is invaluable to any football club or national team.
McNeilly gave us an outline of the type of nutritional counseling that coaches could reasonably be expected to perform with their players, but was quick to stress that players in need of nutritional planning and advice really need to seek the help of a qualified nutritionist.
She outlined the three phases of nutritional requirements for professional footballers (pre-season, in-season and off-season) and discussed the two main areas of off-season concern: body fat percentage and lean muscle mass.
It was a very interesting discussion, and could have gone on for hours. It only served to underscore just how scientific the development of players has become. At the highest levels of the game, teams or countries that are not employing the services of a professional nutritionist are simply putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
David Best, a member of the Irish FA's Referee Committee, delivered the final lecture of the course, entitled 'Serious foul play and violent conduct'.
Needless to say, with a room full of coaches, the ensuing discussion was an interesting one!
Best showed the coaches videos of 10 incidents that occurred in this year's UEFA Champions League. He asked us to assess each situation, to determine if any of the following was merited: a direct free kick, a direct free kick and a yellow card or a direct free kick and a red card.
After viewing the incidents on video, the coaches recorded their selections on a piece of paper. We were then told to stand up before the first incident was replayed a second time. After the video was replayed, Best read out the correct decision, and asked all of the coaches who had marked a different decision to sit down. He then moved on to the next incident, read out the correct decision, and asked all of the coaches who had marked a different decision to sit down.
After the second incident, every coach in the room was sitting down.
Much of the dispute in football comes down to the interpretation of the Laws of the Game. There simply is no black and white answer for every decision made by a referee. What one coach feels is a 'reckless' challenge (meriting a direct free kick and a yellow card) another coach feels is a challenge that uses 'excessive force' and 'endangers the safety of an opponent' (meriting a direct free kick and a red card).
Other factors can influence a referee's decision-making – line of sight being just one example. A referee cannot call what he or she cannot see; they do not have the benefit of slow-motion instant replay like we do watching the game on television.
Cultural differences also play a role. Best said that in Spain, every single one of the incidents we were shown would have seen the referee reaching for the red card. In England, many of the fouls would have merited no more than a direct free kick and a talking to by the referee.
The best referee's 'manage' the game and the players involved – those referees understand and have a feel for the game. Those referees are rarely noticed, unfortunately, as we only ever seem to talk about the mistakes they make, rather than the difficult decisions they get correct. I, for one, came away from the presentation with a far greater appreciation for just how difficult a job it is to be a top referee.
Today was the last day of the course, and I would be remiss not to thank UEFA, and particularly the Irish Football Association, for putting on an excellent course. The content of the course was superb, the instructors were intelligent and professional, and the entire experience was very educational. If you ever get the opportunity to take a UEFA coaching course, I highly recommend it.
I'm sure I will be writing more about the past week in future blogs, once I have some time to reflect on everything. If there are any specific questions you have about the course or my experience attending, feel free to tweet them to me - @jasondevos.