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'It's more than just a badge . . .'

THE aside is designed as a quiet rebuke but it offers an intriguing insight into Dougie Freedman's character.

Dougie Freedman is an advocate of foreign managerial methods and spent many years watching coaching sessions at Milan, Lazio and Palermo. Picture: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images
Dougie Freedman is an advocate of foreign managerial methods and spent many years watching coaching sessions at Milan, Lazio and Palermo. Picture: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

"My Spanish is not what it should be," says the Bolton Wanderers manager, his face betraying a rare flash of frustration. "But I'm learning . . ."

Education is important to the Glaswegian. So, too, is the influence of other cultures. It is why, well before the end of an understated but rewarding playing career, he spent his summers in Italy studying to become a coach. For six or seven years in succession, Freedman was an enthralled observer of training sessions at Milan, Lazio and Palermo and resolved to glean as much information as he could from coaches whose qualifications put those of their British contemporaries to shame.

That thirst for knowledge continues to this day. As he shows you to the door, the 39-year-old is still recounting a more recent experience of watching Pep Guardiola at close quarters, explaining enthusiastically how he watched the Bayern Munich coach repeatedly stop a session to drag some of the best players in the world this way and that, only by a matter of inches in some cases, in his pursuit of perfection.

Details matter to Freedman, too. When he talks of football management abroad being "more serious" it is an acknowledgement of the benefits of dividing responsibility between a coach and a sporting or technical director; the way in which it allows each to sharpen their focus. The traditional British model of management, he believes, can ask too much of individuals who are underprepared for what awaits them when their cossetted existences as players end.

"Just because you used to be a footballer gives you no right to be a manager," Freedman says, springing forward in his chair at Bolton's training ground to reinforce the point. "In this country, you've got to learn how to deal with the media, with certain aspects of financial fair play, with coaching, with social problems in players, language barriers . . . you've got to totally start again.

"So many former players think 'right, I'll get my badges and that's me' but then they have to talk to a board on a Monday morning about how they've spent more than they should have on scouting. They had better have their numbers ready and if they haven't got skills in business or accountancy, they'd better get them quickly because the game has changed and it continues to change as we speak."

The job, he insists, has altered significantly even since he was thrust into his first senior managerial position little over three years ago, taking charge of Crystal Palace after the ill-fated tenure of George Burley. At that time, the club were in grave danger of relegation into the third tier of the English game and barely had an infrastructure to speak of after being rescued from administration just six months earlier.

Freedman's extensive studying, business experience and considered beliefs were given a robust examination in a practical situation.

Yet the Scot thrived, reviving Palace to such an extent that, by the time he left for Bolton in October of last season, the Selhurst Park club were in the play-off places and ultimately earned promotion. "We had a clean slate: there were no hangers-on and no ex-players telling you how you should do things because nobody wanted to be identified with the club," he says. "All the players were kids or loans but, when I came to Bolton, there were players who'd just come down from the Premier League with their own ideas about the game and about themselves. That's another challenge for a manager."

It is one he is meeting. Freedman engineered a sterling run that took Bolton to the cusp of a place in the play-offs last term - they missed out on goal difference - before he was forced to shed a succession of high-earners in the summer as the club attempted to address debts of £164m.

Given his desire to bend players to his will, such departures were perhaps not entirely unwelcome even if subsequent struggles this term appeared to leave his job at risk before a recent run of three wins in their last four propelled them of the relegation zone.

However, throughout that cold winter, Freedman was warmed by the belief that incremental progress was being made; that the players he has gathered together subscribed to his ideas; and that he was building an eager young team with a promising future. "I wasn't worried because I've always got an idea of where I want to go and what I want to achieve," he says. "You get different kinds of managers with different sets of skills - is he a coach, a manager, a businessman? - but any man who doesn't have a long-term plan and just takes it day to day has got to take a look at themselves."

Freedman's plan is tinged with Tartan. He remains a keen observer of events in his homeland - a couple of days earlier he had watched aghast as Rangers were held by Albion Rovers - and his latest lessons have been learned at Largs on the Scottish FA's pro licence course. "My mind is stimulated; I'm not just turning up and getting a badge for being there after being a footballer for 20 years," he says.

Furthermore, Bolton scout north of the border and their manager is impressed by what he has seen. "There's a good crop coming though - the ones that won the Victory Shield - and I think there is value for a club like us because we're a bit skint as well," he says. "I'm always looking for younger players I can mould because that's my passion, seeing them developing and learn. That's the most important thing."

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