"If you were to take any of the world's great players and ask what were the big influences on their lives, 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 road at each point along their career," said Jack Gallagher, one of the most distinguished coaches in the sport.

For 40 years, Gallagher has been one of those 'big influences' on some of the top coaches and players around the world. As a technical advisor to FIFA, he has helped develop some of the game's most successful coaching programmes, working with coaches in 35 countries, from China to Egypt, Indonesia to Sudan.

Gallagher himself did not play the game in any organised capacity until he went to college to train as a physical education teacher in the 1950s. And he cites Gibby McKenzie, a well-known Scottish player and manager in Northern Ireland at the time, as his 'big influence'. He taught the young Jack about the value of coaching when others failed to recognise its importance.

Gallagher began to coach football while he was teaching and one of his pupils was Sammy McIlroy, who played for Manchester United and Northern Ireland and became his nation's manager for a spell. But Gallagher wanted to achieve more and trained to become a fully-qualified, advanced-level coach in England. In 1980 he became a coaching instructor to FIFA as part of its huge development programme.

"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," he says. "People are born with gifts like timing, balance, speed and coordination, but youngsters need to have fun so early training should concentrate on the technical skills so that they can express themselves in a game. As they get to 14, 15, 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."

"I think in the past there was a bit of 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 at 16 for Manchester United, but people had no experience of how to manage a celebrity footballer then. 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 per cent perspiration and five percent inspiration."

Another superstar whose achievements can be credited to an impressive work ethic is Luis Figo, whom Gallagher considers a fine example to young players. "He wants take in everything and learn 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 at any given moment."

Modestly, Figo advises that many of his team-mates at youth level were better than he was. "You can be very talented as an individual but still not make it," he warns. "Technical ability is not enough - you have to match it with dedication and effort in order to differentiate yourself from the rest."

Now 35, Figo is still playing at the top level for Inter Milan, having collected 127 Portugal caps and won the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2001. The winger attributes his success to the experience he gained at youth level, where he helped Portugal finish third at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Scotland 1989 and then win the FIFA U-20 World Cup on home soil two years later.

"Those competitions were extremely important to me because I had the experience of going through the national team all the stages," he continues. "And the tournaments were fantastic experiences for me and helped me develop as a professional player. In fact, I think my performance in the U-20 competition in Portugal promoted me into Sporting's first team because people began to notice me. Playing in prestigious competitions and against other countries makes it easier to transfer to the professional game."

FIFA competitions are, of course, at the very top of the pyramid, but there are several other youth tournaments where youngsters can experience international competition. One of these is the Milk Cup, played for the last 25 years in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, where Gallagher can be found passing on his wisdom to 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 and higher level that they gain the tactical awareness they need to be very special."

The prestigious competition attracts teams from all over the world, one being Manchester United. The English giants' manager Sir Alex Ferguson even describes the Milk Cup as "the crème de la crème of international youth tournaments," and members of their triumphant side of 1991 - namely Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and Robbie Savage - bear witness to this.

Current England players Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole, Peter Crouch and Aaron Lennon are also graduates of the Milk Cup, as are senior international from Scotland, Wales, Republic of Ireland, Turkey, Israel, Finland, Brazil, Netherlands, Uruguay and even New Zealand.

It has a special in Gallagher's heart. "I'm 67 now but I still retain that enthusiasm for coaching and it's still a huge thrill for me when people ask me to come and coach their youngsters," Gallagher enthuses. "And for me, the biggest moment every year is when I see teams coming to Northern Ireland from all over the world for the Milk Cup."