“It’s something I enjoy, definitely, but it is strange.”
Ben Osborn smiles, as he prepares to lead a coaching session for kids aged 13-15 at Eastwood Community Football Club in Nottingham.
“I think the parents find it strange, especially when we were playing in the Premier League. We were playing against Chelsea on the Saturday, and then I’m down here on the Monday night!
“It was great to be honest. The lads would end up asking me about the game, and most of them would all end up watching the game. They’d give me a bit of stick if we lost, or ask me about certain players.
“It brought me right back down to earth every single week – even if we had a bad result and played c**p, I’d come here and the lads would take the mick out of me, and all my mates would be p*****g themselves after we got ripped up.
“It grounded me and made me switch off from the game and set the week up quite nicely.”
On a weekly basis, Osborn pulls on the red and white colours of Sheffield United, having joined the Yorkshire club from Nottingham Forest two years ago. He has made over 280 career appearances, he has featured 37 times in the Premier League, and is a regular performer for the Blades as they look to make a swift return to England’s top-flight.
At the age of 27, though, Osborn is already planning for life after the game. He has already completed his UEFA B licence and is in the process of completing his UEFA A licence, and whilst many leave their options open up until the latter stages of their playing career, he is certainly clear on what direction he wants to head in.
“I’ve thought about loads of different routes, but the bottom line is, football is all I know,” he says.
“If I was to go down a physio route, for instance, I think I’d always want to say my piece on the team. Inevitably, it’s going to have to be a coach or manager, which one yet, I’m not sure, but I think I’ll start off by coaching and working my way up.”
Two years ago, Osborn began to embark on his coaching journey, during a period of time where he was attracting admiring glances from the Premier League and Sheffield United. He and his friend, Jack Andrews, founded Elite Football Development – a training scheme aiming to bring elite level development to kids aged six to 15, helping them maintain their love for the game at an early age.
What was initially a brief suggestion from a friend has now turned into a substantial part in each of their livelihoods.
“We started it in 2019, me and my mate, Jack Andrews, who I was a youth team player with at Forest. When he got released after his first year as a pro, he went on to become a full-time coach.
“He came to me with an idea about potentially setting something up, we didn’t really know what, but we had a few ideas.
“Initially, we were just going to be delivering just technical sessions – not much contact and just working on shooting, passing, dribbling, loads of ball work. We put on a couple of free open sessions here, and the turnout was pretty good.
“Since then, it has developed into giving grassroots footballers the opportunity to work with ex-footballers and UEFA B qualified coaches. It’s grown from strength-to-strength.”
Osborn and Andrews’ project has developed massively. They operate in Nottingham and have recently branched out to Derby, and are continuing to expand as they look to reach out to more kids across the Midlands.
Once upon a time, Osborn himself was one of those kids. But as with any career, there are ups and downs, and soon came the feeling of rejection.
“I had a year when I was seven playing for Chellaston Red Sox in Derby, a little local team. I remember just absolutely loving it with my mates. After that, I signed for Derby academy, I stayed there for a year and got released when I was in the Under 8s.
“I played a couple more games in grassroots with my friends again, and six weeks later, I signed for Forest, and was there ever since.
“I didn’t really experience much of grassroots football, but I loved playing for school, and loads of my mates who have played grassroots all their life are still playing every single week in non-league, some of them are even doing quite well. I think it’s hugely important – you want to see the park pitches packed out like they were 20 years ago.”
Elite Football Development looks to focus on bringing elite level coaching, not just to those wanting to play and learn more about the game, but to those who have already had a taste of that standard of coaching. Those who have been rejected by clubs, and those perhaps in need of a confidence boost having dealt with such hurt at an early age.
“We’ve got two or three coaches who have all been released by clubs at different times. Some of them were early teenagers, some of them when they were really young and some of them when they were first and second year pros.
“That’s been a thing which is massive for us – we’ve had kids who have come after being rejected after having trials or having been released, and it’s just about building their confidence. We’ve seen so many lads who we know and have played with that have been released and completely dropped out of the game, even though at one point it was their life. They just fell out of love with football.
“That’s been something really close to us, and it’s something we’d like to do moving forward as we work with even older kids as they drop out of the game.
“Another good thing that we’ve stumbled across now we’ve gone a bit more full-time and have a few more people working for us, is that it could be a chance for people who do get released to come and join us as a coach, just to stay in the game and so we can help them with their footballing career.
“Sometimes we speak to parents and they’re a bit desperate to get them straight back in, and sometimes we’ve had to say it’s maybe not the right time at the moment, not saying he’s not good enough, but keep him down there playing with their mates and get them back enjoying their football. It’ll come, and if it happens, it happens.
“There’s been a lot of tragic stories – I know a couple of people myself who have gone completely off the rails. I don’t know if the support network is as big as it should be, but hopefully that’s something we can provide in the future.”
The transition between playing and coaching he finds strange, then, but does such a contrast in responsibility help benefit him as a player?
“100%. We’re only working with up to Under 15s here and we want to work with older lads in the future, but even just going through my badges and thinking about the game a little bit differently, it’s helped me massively.
“I look at the game a little bit different. Sometimes when I’m sat on the bench, I’ll be looking at the game thinking when I come on, I know where the space is and stuff like that.
“I’ve just become more aware of my game and where I need to improve, and how I need to improve. It’s helped me a lot.
“I was lucky to work under quite a few coaches at Forest, especially through the academy. Gary Brazil, Nick Marshall, Eoin Jess, Charlie McParland, and I’ve been through quite a lot of first-team managers as well.
“Gary has always been really supportive. He actually gave me my recommendation when I went on my A licence, and if I ever need any help, he’ll help me out.
“When I restarted my B licence in 2018, I just really enjoyed it. When my mate asked me if I wanted to put something on, it was a good opportunity and I’ve been enjoying it ever since.”
So what is next for Elite Football Development, then? Whilst Osborn may still have several years remaining in the playing side of the game, he is more than determined to keep it growing and make it reach as many people as possible.
“It’s a lot of work at the moment – one of us is full-time, we’re in seven schools, so we want to keep growing that and getting into more schools in Derby and Nottingham.
“The next step is potentially finding a sponsor where we can make our sessions even more accessible to a lot of kids. That’s the next step in the short-term.
“In the long-term, who knows really? We’ll just keep growing it and keep offering different services. Hopefully we’ll start working with a lot of older players, taking teams into academies, working with players who have been released and offering scholarship programmes.
“It is quite a lot of work and it is hard to balance both, but I’ve got stuff to go into straight away to keep myself busy.
“I have a bit of a path, so it does take off a little bit of pressure and worry in that sense.”