Colin Pates is on a mission. The former Albion defender has a playing squad of 1,400 to achieve it as he pioneers the beautiful game at a 300-year-old independent school.

Whitgift, the Manchester United of schools rugby just north of Sussex, had never played football prior to Pates' arrival.

The 40-year-old said: "There wasn't a pitch and there was no ball. We went over the local common for our first training session with some under-18s after finding a ball that looked like the dog had chewed it up.

"I had to go right back to basics. All they had known was rugby, so it was a case of going through the rules of football to start with, like the ball we use is round!

"I was told that in 300 years football had never been considered. But a lot of the boys and their parents expressed an interest.

"It might be an independent school but you can forget the black and white filmed images of public school kids. Most are from working class backgrounds and they love their football.

"It grew a lot quicker than the head thought and he told me I should take over as master in charge of football and I got in another old Albion player, John Humphrey, to assist me and it is going well.

"I used to coach basketball at the school as well and still coach rugby, although I haven't a clue about the rules. But the demand for football takes up nearly all my time.

"We're creating a monster with 1,400 children at the school looking to play but I'm enjoying the challenge. We've come a long way in the three or four years I've been here.

"I don't know about turning it into the Manchester United of schools football, but I'd settle at being the equivalent of a mid-table Premiership club.

"There's a long way to go but the under-11s won the school's first football trophy last season and we're hoping it is the first of many, although it won't be easy."

Pates is unable to get down to Withdean due to work commitments that also include providing match statistics for the Press Association at Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Brentford and Wimbledon matches.

He said: "It is a good way of still keeping in touch with the professional game and to keep up with modern tactics and styles, but the way my school work is developing I might spend six or sometimes seven days a week involved with Whitgift."

Pates quit the game in January 1995, with a knee injury on the advice of Liam Brady, who was his boss at the Goldstone, during his second spell with the Seagulls which lasted 61 games from 1993 to 1995.

He said: "Liam told me that I should think of my health before my playing career and that I would be a fool to myself if I carried on playing.

" My knee had fallen apart and it was the right advice. If I'd ignored it I could well have ended up not being able to walk. Footballers need to be told when it is the end. I'll always be grateful to Liam for that."

Pates was brought in by Barry Lloyd on loan from Arsenal in February 1991 to ease a defensive crisis for his first spell which ended in the play-off final against Notts County at Wembley.

He said: "It was a good time. The result in the play-off final didn't go our way but it was a fantastic experience for the team to play at Wembley, the side was so close to the Premiership, or First division as it was called then.

"I'd been lucky to have played there before but to others it was the pinnacle of their careers."

Pates arrived at Albion after a frustrating time with Arsenal in which they were the dominant club in the country under George Graham.

He said: "George signed me from Charlton and I told him 'I don't know why you bought me, you've got a back four who hardly concede any goals and you've the likes of David O'Leary and Andy Linighan in reserve. I might as well go. You don't need me. I've got to leave'. I wanted to be playing regularly.

"He told me I had to honour my contract and needed me in case of injuries and, to be fair, myself, David and Andy did get few games, which included the year Arsenal won the title, and we did a job."

Pates added: "I haven't got a Championship medal. It's an unwritten rule among footballers that you don't take one if you haven't played that many games.

"They won four major trophies while I was there on standby (playing 21 league games in three-and-a-half years)."

He still manages to play every other Sunday with former Seagulls Clive Walker, Perry Digweed, Gary Chivers and Ray Wilkins, the brother of Seagulls youth boss Dean, for Chelsea Vets.

Pates said: "We go all over playing charity games and I enjoy it. I spent 11 years at Chelsea and it's a great way to keep in touch with them and the game and good causes benefit."

He began his career with Chelsea and was club captain for seven years before moving to Charlton.

Pates said: "Chelsea were a good side and provided my major personal highlight when promoted to the old first division.

"It was a terrific side including players like Kerry Dixon, David Speedie and Pat Nevin."

After leaving Albion, he managed Crawley Town and went on to guide Finchley to promotion in Ryman Division tThree while gaining his coaching qualifications before finding his niche in Croydon at Whitgift.

Pates counts himself fortunate.

He said: "I was lucky in my professional career. I spent most of it in the top flight because Charlton were up there as well during my time with them.

"Obviously I dropped down to a lower division with Albion and found I had more time on the ball, something you never used to get in the Premier, but I had some good times.

"But I'm getting plenty of satisfaction doing what I'm doing now."

Today the former England Youth player was watching Sven Goran Eriksson's England take on Greece at Old Trafford "talking about how I should have won all those full caps, like you do in the pub".

But on Monday it'll be back to school and moulding that 1,400-strong playing squad.