Five Minutes of Your Time is a series of interviews with people from different areas and eras within the game. This one features Jim Hicks, former Coventry City and Wealdstone centre half, currently Head of Coaching at the Professional Footballers Association (PFA)
Jim, your playing career started in East Anglia (Newmarket, Soham Town) and then you got into the pro game with Coventry City and Exeter City circa 1983. Can you remember what your thoughts were at that time? Was a career in the pro game going to be the future for Jim Hicks?
I certainly didn’t think it was ever going to last more than a game or two!
I was lucky to have come across Dave Sexton while a student at Warwick University, and he started me playing in the reserves at Coventry, and it went from there. I was training to be a PE teacher, and that would have been the chosen career had I not taken a detour.
It was all very exciting, and frightening too. I was in a protected world playing university football, and all of a sudden it became much more serious.
You moved onto to Fulham where you spent the best part of three seasons, then you moved onto the USA with Washington Stars. Was that a very different culture around the game?
The culture in the States was very different for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was nowhere near the top sport in the USA, and largely speaking nobody knew or cared at all for ‘soccer’, except of course in the huge Latino communities around Washington DC where I was living. They were passionate players and supporters, and were playing a possession-based game which was unfamiliar to me. I’d just left England where the tactics were generally to press, chase, tackle and smash the ball as far forward as was physically possible.
It was a massive eye-opener for me, and has really stayed with me as a coach ever since.
Had you had thoughts at that time of getting involved in coaching and management or was that something that came along later?I was always thinking about coaching, long before I went to the USA to play, and I did take my US Soccer B and A Licence while I was there.
It was an enjoyable set of courses, very different from the English system at the time, much more co-operative and creative. Again, it influenced my thinking but I was not interested in football management really, I was always more a coach than manager.
After a short spell in the USA you came back into the non-league game. Was that a hard step to take? What brought you then to Wealdstone?
I arrived at Wealdstone from St Albans, where I couldn’t fit in or play regularly enough to justify all the effort. Non-league was an enjoyable time for me, but work was starting to dominate my time so I found it increasingly difficult to train regularly and coach sessions too. It was a slow withdrawal from playing.
Wealdstone’s first season at Vicarage Road was one of great expectations, what was it like to be a ‘Stones player at that time? What were the highs and lows? Any specific memories of the club or the people?
All I can really remember is how lucky we were to be playing all home games at Vicarage Road!
From a players perspective it was great fun, but there were poor training facilities behind the scenes, and I was getting increasingly pressured to be coaching more, so it had to end.
Did you play on after you left Wealdstone?
I did play for Ely City in the Eastern Counties League, which was great fun. We had some really good players, we played a style of football which interested me, and we did it with a smile.
What more could anyone want from non-league?
You got involved in the Football in The Community system at Millwall and then had a successful spell as manager of Millwall Lionesses. How did that come about?
I worked at Millwall Community Scheme for 10 years, and that was the biggest influence on me as a teacher of the game and as a communicator. It was a tough proving ground, but there was so much enthusiasm and talent that as a staff we were always innovating and experimenting. It was a brilliant place to work.
I was also coach and manager of the Millwall Lionesses for a number of years, and we set up the very first Girls Centre of Excellence in this country. We had an amazing crop of players, and again we allowed them to express themselves in games at a time when coach domination was the usual route.
No thoughts or opportunities to coach in the Men’s game during that period?
I had a number of chances to take jobs within the men’s game, but I was so enjoying the work I was doing. It never seemed important to move on.
We were developing an excellent programme and I talked all the time about player loyalty and staying for the long term, so how could I leave?
Now you are Head of Coaching at the PFA. How did the move into that side of the game come about?I had always been a coach educator while working at Millwall, helping fellow coaches to gain qualifications and expertise, so when a chance came to do this full time with the PFA Coaching Department it was an opportunity.
It gave me a chance to work with current and former professional players on a daily basis, which really appealed.
What does the role involve? Do you get ‘hands on’ with players now?
My role with the PFA has changed since I first joined them in 2003. At first I was a hands-on coach educator every day, as I said, working with apprentices, current and former players to get them qualified to work as coaches of the future.
I was appointed Head of Coaching at the PFA about 5 years ago, and this role still has elements of coach education, but I also have responsibility for managing the other 10 coaches in our department, as well as being the point of contact with the FA, Premier League and the Football League. The role can be deeply political at times, and challenging in many different ways.
Is there a part of you that would like to go back into the day to day coaching and management role within a club?
The idea of working with players on a daily basis is always appealing, and our department does regularly lose staff members back into the professional game, but I am happy with my current role.
It offers different challenges every day, is diverse enough to keep the mind active and always throws up something special. We also have a new office at St Georges Park, which means spending more time there. These are exciting times for coach education in England…
Finally, I’ll grant you three wishes;
One: You can change any one thing about your career to date. What would it be and why?
As a player coming out of non-league football into the professional game in the 80s I wish I’d have known back then all I know now. I never really knew enough, or was good enough to play comfortably.
I’d like to have had a better football knowledge back then.
Two: You can change one thing about the game as a whole, again, what would it be and why?
Somehow incentivise professional clubs to allow more home grown players to progress through the ranks and break into the first team.
We talk about this all the time, and clubs are spending millions on the new Elite Player Performance Programme (EPPP), but young talent is finding fewer and fewer opportunities to play than ever before. We have to address this, or the best English talent will never again break through.
Three; Its a perfect world – you can wake up tomorrow and it’ll be Jim Hick’s perfect day; what would you do?
Run, then a massive breakfast, read the papers cover to cover and be outside all day without having to answer to any technology.
That would be a treat!