Licence to thrill for coaches of future
A SHARP shrill emanates from Conor McCormack's whistle and the 22-year-old trots over to show me what I did wrong.
Operating in the unfamiliar No 10 role, your correspondent has just turned into traffic and given the ball away to Derry City's Ruaidhri Higgins, who smartly launches a counter-attack. The Shamrock Rovers man is quickly over to explain how it was the wrong option at the wrong time.
It is no surprise, given my own lack of pedigree, that it is the non-footballer in the bunch being pulled up, but the instructions are sharp and concise and the training game moves on quickly.
McCormack is one of 17 current and former professional footballers who are spending part of their off-season at the AUL near Dublin Airport, training for their UEFA 'B' coaching licence as part of the FAI's coach education scheme. At 22, he is the youngest man on the course but, having come up through the system at Manchester United and starred in Rovers' European run in 2011, the Louth native is adapting well. Having been trained by top-class coaches throughout his career, the crafty midfielder is able to communicate his thoughts succinctly and practically.
Most of those listening to him are hardened pros, some already retired and in management, others looking at moving into coaching when they've finished.
Footballers often speak about getting their badges early and McCormack is ahead of the pack. This is why he finds himself giving instructions to an out-of-shape hack, surrounded by League of Ireland veterans participating in a nine-a-side, situation-based game.
McCormack is making best use of what he has. In goals are former internationals Joseph Ndo (Cameroon) and Dominic Foley, while there are league and FAI Cup winners dotted around the park.
For the youngster, it is about being given the experience of doling out practical instruction based on real-life scenarios.
Each player analysed a different element of an Ireland U-19 game against Germany and they are asked to put that into practice on the field. It is all about getting used to coaching.
"It is something I'd like to do," McCormack explains. "I coach kids and then I'd like to progress. I find it interesting enough, it is all game related and – even though you play for so many years – you still find stuff you didn't know about. When you come into the coaching side of it, you pick up so much stuff that it is frightening."
The afternoon's session began with McCormack and Shelbourne midfielder Glenn Cronin demonstrating what they had learned from Ireland's display against Germany on a whiteboard.
Both were given different aspects of the game to analyse by Ireland U-16 coach Tom O'Connor, who interjects with probing questions when he feels they have missed something. They are then asked to design a nine-on-nine session to best improve on what they have seen, before taking that session out on to the pitch for some reality-based training.
"UEFA decided to go for a reality-based approach," FAI coach education national co-ordinator Greig Paterson explains. "Before that they would pick topics out of the hat, so (now) the coaches are devising their own sessions based on their analysis. They have up to 18 players in a training game now and today they might only have 15 or 16 bodies, but that's reality. In training somebody might be injured. It is all about dealing with reality."
While he is improving his coaching abilities through the course, McCormack also sees the benefits in his game when he goes back to Rovers, where he has re-signed for a third season.
"You're always looking for scenarios to make the game better," he explains. "Where you can be to receive the ball, to be in a better position. When the ball is played up the pitch, where you should be and where your team-mates should be, so the coaching helps that."
Having learned from some of the best coaches in the business during his time in England, McCormack also spent time in Italy with Triestina, a spell that gave him a different perspective on both playing and coaching.
"Obviously at United, they had the top coaches across the world. I was lucky enough to learn from them and as I learn myself now, I can take things from that experience," he explains.
"There was a different culture and a different game in Italy. It is a possession-based game compared with the League of Ireland where it is one for all and you have proper battles. In Italy it is more chilled out, but you learn from that and put it all together and blend it into your experience and game.
"I learned how to read the game a lot better since going away, so it is all about putting those experiences to good use."
Paterson is a former professional himself and he and his staff can see the differences between dealing with players who play at such a high level and have experienced good coaching and others who come from lower levels of football.
The FAI run courses for all levels of coaches, not just the elite, but the ex-pros have an advantage says the Scot.
"To be honest, there is a big difference. There is no point in saying otherwise. These guys analyse their own coaches every day at training and have a head-start.
"When they are giving demonstrations, they may not have that confidence at speaking in front of people but, in terms of on the pitch, they definitely have a head-start. It is ingrained in them, second nature."
"We have a good relationship with the PFAI now and to get 17 players is great. It would normally be 12 or so, but with this many you can keep it within the professionals. Players are realising earlier that, with club licensing, they have to start their coaching careers earlier too."
League of Ireland managers must have secured their 'A' licence before taking over any club, so the work continues for this bunch of current and former professionals as they look to improve their futures through the game. And the work being done out by the airport is moving them, step by step, towards that goal.
Even if they have to put up with wayward passes and poor touches from journalists every once in a while.