the 'big influence'

"If you were to take any of the great players of the world and ask what the big influences on their lives were, they will start at the very beginning with a primary school teacher, a youth club coach - not necessarily someone in professional football but someone who set them on the right path of the starting point of their career." So says Jack Gallagher, one of the distinguished football coaches.

For 40 years, Jack has been one of those 'big influences' on some of the top coaches and players around the world. As a technical adviser to FIFA, he has helped develop some of the game's most successful coaching programmes, working with coaches from around the world.

Gallagher himself didn't play the game in any organised capacity until he went to college to train as a teacher in physical education in the 1950s. And he refers to Gibby McKenzie, a Scot and a well-known football player and manager in Northern Ireland at the time, as his 'big influence'. He taught the young Jack the value of coaching when others didn't recognise it.

Jack Gallagher began to coach football while he was teaching and one of his schoolboy international stars was Sammy McIlroy, who played for Manchester United and Northern Ireland, and became the country's manager for a spell.

But Gallagher wanted more so he trained to become an advanced-level coach in England. In 1980 he became a coaching instructor for FIFA as part of its development programme.

Gallagher knows that a lot of clubs are on the look-out for talented young players. But he believes that managed development is the critical factor in bringing a player to a state of readiness for the professional game: "Everything you do should aim to be working towards that in terms of the infrastructure with which you surround your player in terms of education, technical competence at the right time, tactical awareness development at the right time and his - or her - physical conditioning as he grows and mental and psychological strength throughout those processes.

Many years ago, players just ran round a field as a method of training, they would never have been put in practical situations, rehearsed in tactical drills or anything like that. It was very amateurish.

"People are born with gifts like timing, balance, speed and coordination but youngsters need to have fun, early training should concentrate on the technical skills so that they can express themselves in a game. As they get to the ages between 14 and 16, then you can develop their tactical awareness and at 16-plus, when they are more or less fully-developed, you need to think about their physical conditioning.

"In the past there was a hit or miss attitude in terms of talented players like George Best. He was the first celebrity footballer. He was born in Northern Ireland and signed for Manchester at 16 but people had no experience of how to manage a celebrity footballer then but take another former Manchester United player, David Beckham, and see how that has changed.

"Like Beckham, if you want success you really have to want it badly and you have to be prepared to work for it. It's 95 percent perspiration and five percent inspiration".

Beckham may be a celebrity but it is well-known that he practised his free kicks for long hours after regular training, which is how he has managed to achieve such pin-point accuracy.

Gallagher also refers to another famous player, Luis Figo, as an example to young players. "He takes in everything and learns from his experiences and it's clear that, when he plays, he's one of the most cultured footballers in terms of understanding what is happening on the field."

Figo generously says that many of his colleagues at a young age were better players than him: "You can be very talented as an individual but still not make it in terms of having a successful career. Technical ability is not enough - you have to match it with dedication and effort to differentiate yourself from the rest."

Luis Figo is undeniably one of the all-time great footballers. Now 35, he is still playing at the top level for Inter Milan, having travelled via Sporting Lisbon, Barcelona and Real Madrid. On the way, he has picked up 127 international caps for Portugal and was voted FIFA World Player of the Year in 2001.

Figo's international career began early and he puts his development as an outstanding player down to the experience of world-class competitions as a teenager. In 1989, he was part of the Portugal team that finished third in the FIFA U-17 World Championship, now the FIFA U-17 World Cup, and two years later won the FIFA World Youth Championship, now the FIFA U-20 World Cup.

"Those competitions were extremely important to me," he says. "I had the experience of going through all the stages of the selection process and the tournaments were fantastic experiences that helped me develop as a professional player.

"In fact, I think my performance in the U-20 competition in Portugal promoted me into Sporting Lisbon's first team because people began to notice me. Until then I had been in the lower ranks. And playing in prestigious competitions and against other countries makes it easier to transfer to the professional game."

Of course the FIFA competitions are at the very top of the pyramid. There are many youth tournaments throughout the world where youngsters can experience serious international competition.

One of the most prestigious and famous of these is the Milk Cup, played for the last 25 years in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and Jack Gallagher can be found there too coaching youngsters from nearby County Down.

"At a certain point you have to expose your players, and especially your very talented players, to the white-hot heat of international competition," he says. "It's only by playing at a higher level that players gain the tactical awareness they need to be very special."

Teams come from all over the world to play in the tournament and top British clubs frequently send their youth teams over for the experience.

Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, describes the Milk Cup as "the crème de la crème of international youth tournaments" and some of the names of the Milk Cup-winning United team of 1991 bear witness to this: David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and Robbie Savage, for instance. Current England players who also appeared in the tournament include Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole, Peter Crouch and Aaron Lennon but there are many dozens more from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Turkey, Israel, Finland, Brazil, Holland, Uruguay and even New Zealand.

"I'm 67 now," Jack Gallagher says. "But I still retain enthusiasm for coaching and it's still a huge thrill when people ask me to coach their youngsters. And the biggest moment every year is when I see teams from around the world coming to Northern Ireland for the Milk Cup and being presented to the audience."