Gary O'Neil has won three Championship play-off finals at Wembley Stadium, played at Anfield, Old Trafford, the Emirates Stadium and Stamford Bridge and rubbed shoulders with a whole host of Premier League greats. But nothing prepared him for the nervousness he felt when he had to make presentations on his UEFA Pro Licence coaching course.
"You'd think that playing at Old Trafford in front of 80,000 people is far more nerve-racking," the former Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and West Ham United midfielder tells Bleacher Report. "But because that's what you're accustomed to, getting up to speak in front of a room full of people is more difficult."
"When you're playing, you don't think about it. You're just sat in your seat, judging the manager, laughing at him with the lads, going, 'What's he talking about?' Whereas when you're up there with the laser pen in your hands, being in control of the slides, you realise how difficult it is. There might only be 20 of you in the room, but you sit there thinking, 'Please don't pick me. I really don't want to get up.'"
On top of having to deliver presentations in front of their peers, footballers studying for the Pro Licence face the added pressure of knowing that their every word and gesture is being scrutinised by their course assessors. And if that's not enough, there's all the technology that must be mastered, be it editing match footage for pre-game briefings, designing and logging training sessions, getting to grips with tactical software or learning how to navigate scouting platforms.
"Being able to use different types of software I found difficult," says O'Neil, who studied for his Pro Licence with the Irish Football Association in Belfast. "Before I went on the Pro Licence, the extent of my iPad use was watching Netflix on away trips."
A Pro Licence is a compulsory requirement for any person hoping to get a job as a manager in one of Europe's major leagues. And for players who have spent their entire careers thinking only about their own performances, the courses can be a shock to the system.
"There's a lot more work than you think as a player," says former Wales international Andrew Crofts, who is also working towards his Pro Licence. "You haven't got any idea of the amount of work that coaches and managers put in. And why should you, really, because all you're concentrating on is playing."
Whereas UEFA's B Licence (Basic) and A Licence (Advanced) qualifications are geared more towards on-pitch coaching, the goal of the Pro Licence is to prepare candidates for the rigours of elite-level management. So in addition to modules on subjects such as data analysis, sports science, scouting and psychology, candidates are taught leadership skills and shown how to build fruitful working relationships with players, club owners and the media.
Courses typically take around a year to complete, during which candidates must undergo a minimum of 360 hours of study (144 hours of off-pitch theory units and 216 hours of on-pitch practical units), plus nine hours of assessments. A group of coaching education experts at UEFA sets the core curriculum, which is delivered by the continent's national federations (43 of UEFA's 55 member associations offer Pro Licence courses). The courses are delivered over a succession of residential get-togethers and include one four-day seminar at UEFA's headquarters in the Swiss town of Nyon.
"It's about producing coaches who are the creme de la creme," says Frank Ludolph, UEFA's head of football education services. "They are the top coaches in the elite game, and they need to ensure that their players are developing in the right direction. They need to face all the demands of the modern game."
The course run by the Football Association of Wales is particularly well-regarded and counts Mikel Arteta, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Chris Wilder among its alumni. Welsh national technical director David Adams has seen plenty of players encounter difficulties on the FAW's courses, including one renowned former Premier League midfielder who got tongue-tied during a tactical presentation.
"He had to do a presentation on a tactics board, and he'd never used one before in his life," Adams tells Bleacher Report. "He got himself in a real tangle and found it really difficult. He completely lost his train of thought. It just shows that the stuff you've got to do as a manager and a coach these days is totally different to what you did as a player."
A stated aim of the FAW's Pro Licence course is to force candidates to develop new skills by taking them outside their comfort zones. Guest speakers from the world of business and sports other than football give candidates different perspectives on how to build successful professional environments, while last year's Pro Licence cohort was taken to visit the production line of a local radiator factory in order to learn about the importance of giving players what Adams calls "role clarity."
For one assignment, candidates spend four days visiting a club overseas and must then produce a 3,000-word report on their trip along with a 45-minute presentation. "They're back to school, really, because most of these guys will have never written a 3,000-word report in their lives before," Adams says.
Candidates are continually assessed over the duration of a Pro Licence course, and although it is possible to fail the course, the emphasis is on helping people to develop the skills that they need to pass it. Only candidates who disengage, either due to disinterest or a change in circumstances, are in danger of not passing. The high level of competition for places (the FAW received 117 applications for the 22 spots on its next Pro Licence course) means that the vast majority of candidates see things through to the end.
Those who have completed a Pro Licence course often cherish the bonds that they have formed with their fellow candidates just as much as the new skills that they have acquired.
"You're away from home, and you stay for a couple of weeks or whatever it may be, and you're all sat down in the hotel bar or in the lobby in the evening, and you're all exchanging notes and comparing stories," says O'Neil, whose course-mates in Belfast included former Celtic and Aston Villa midfielder Stiliyan Petrov and Canada head coach John Herdman.
"It was fascinating to see how different people from different countries approached things," O'Neil adds. "There was a real camaraderie because you quickly realise that you all get put in this uncomfortable situation, stood at the front of the room. You're all in it together, and you try to help each other through it."
O'Neil, who is recovering from injury and without a club, is scheduled to return to Belfast to collect his Pro Licence certificate in September and is actively looking for coaching opportunities. But candidates who had been due to embark on courses this year are stuck in limbo because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The FAW's Pro Licence course had been set to begin at the end of March, but the first contact session is now unlikely to take place until November. As the course directors consider ways to deliver elements of the programme via remote learning, the candidates who had been due to start it—a list that includes former Everton midfielder Tim Cahill, ex-Villa striker Juan Pablo Angel, one-time Liverpool defender Djimi Traore and Stoke City captain Ryan Shawcross—find themselves kicking their heels.
"In the grand scheme of things, the most important thing is people's health and everyone hopefully getting back to normal when it's safe to do so," says Crofts, who is working as an under-23s player-coach at Brighton & Hove Albion and had been due to enrol on the FAW's Pro Licence course in March.
"But I was over the moon to be accepted on to the Pro Licence because you have to go through quite a rigorous process of applying. I was really enjoying learning all the time, and I couldn't wait to start."
The thought of presenting in front of their peers may bring out some players in a cold sweat, but it is an ordeal that the next generation of football managers is perfectly prepared to endure.