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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Blueprint According To...Jamie Wright

"Teaching How To Deal With Success And Failure Is Important"

The desire to help others is frequently the reason why people pick up football coaching.  Whether it is assisting your child’s coach, guiding some mates or passing on knowledge to a younger sibling, many take their first steps in coaching in this casual manner before finding that they enjoy it and start taking it a bit more seriously.

That wish to help out never really leaves a true coach but eventually it is joined by other desires such as that of wanting to win or, at least, see the team meet whatever goals it set itself.

For some coaches, however, that of helping is the main goal.  This is particularly the case of those who are involved in clubs’ community schemes where football is the means to push through certain social messages rather than anything else.

Jamie Wright is one such coach and as such can better explain what the blueprint of those who are solely focused on helping is like.

Blueprint for Football: Let's start with the basics: what made you go into coaching? 
Jamie Wright: I left school at 16 and there was a position at a local coaching provider as a trainee coach.  I didn’t really want to go into further education and I had always loved football so it seemed like a no brainer.

BfF: Have you had any mentors in your career? 
JW: Two coaches have played a huge part in my development although I learn from all coaches I come into contact with.  Wayne Walls and Ian Dipper are the two who believed in me from the start and are still the two coaches I consult with on a regular basis – their advice is always excellent and they both challenge my thinking.

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy? 
JW: I have this in a presentation I deliver to staff, ‘To produce technically gifted players in a fun, challenging and positive learning environment’.  This philosophy stays with me no matter who I’m working with and forms the foundation on which the department is structured around.

BfF: Is winning important for you? 
JW: Not results based winning no; winning to me is personal.  To become more confident, to use the other foot, to win a 1 v 1 or make a good decision are examples of what I would class as winning.

BfF: What is the most important thing you try to teach during your sessions? 
JW: I’m a great believer in developing technical proficiency in both feet so to pass, dribble, turn and shoot using right and left foot are all important during my sessions.  I like to ensure that the participants have fun in sessions so that has a big focus when planning them.  

Depending on the age of the players, teaching how to deal with success and failure is important too.

BfF: You work at the Foundation of Light.  How did that job come about? 
JW: I finished my traineeship and the opportunity to work for the then Football in the Community scheme as a casual coach came about.  I’ve been here ever since!  I’ve worked on a number of projects and roles within the organisation including the Disability programme, running an outreach project, Head of Football Delivery and now the Directors’ role.

BfF: What is it exactly that you do, both you as an individual and the foundation? 
JW: The Foundation of Light is the registered charity of Sunderland AFC.  We use the power of football to involve, educate and inspire more than 42,000 young people and their families across the North East each year through a broad range of innovative and award-winning programmes that can help change their lives.

The organisation is committed and pro-active in addressing the issues within our community, running programmes at specially designed classrooms within the Stadium of Light, in local schools, community centres and at bespoke outreach centres throughout Sunderland, South Tyneside and County Durham.

My role as the Football & Sport Development Director is to ensure that we deliver high quality sports sessions to a wide range of participants from children as young as 18 months up to adults.  We deliver to schools and community, so ensuring that each curriculum is current, fit for purpose and of the highest quality is the challenge.  

I have a great team alongside me who are deeply passionate about developing the experience our participants receive.

BfF: We hear a lot about it but how can football help society? 
JW: In the North East football is massive.  The weight of the badge is massive and we find it opens doors that wouldn’t normally open.  

BfF: I would assume that you meet a lot of kids with a widely varying range of abilities, probably in the same sessions.  How do you handle these situations? 
JW: That’s what we do – we are community coaches first and foremost.  The ability to ensure a group of children with mixed ability, mixed gender and mixed interest in football or sport have fun, learn something and want to come back next week is a massively undervalued skill.

BfF: How much of a vocation is your job? 
JW: This is my job and I wouldn’t want to work in anything else.  I do however feel coaching is still treated as a hobby in certain fields and there needs to be a culture shift in the way coaching is perceived.  For me, coaching is a form of teaching and should be professionalised in a similar way.  

BfF: Do you miss coaching a team where results matter?  Or is it more rewarding? 
JW: I’ve only been away from having a team for a year and there are times when you miss working towards the game however I believe the development coaches are the ones who should have the higher status as if they are doing their roles effectively they will be the ones setting the right standards with the players they work with.

BfF: What do you want to achieve to be satisfied with what you have done in your career? 
JW: I have to say I’m never satisfied, that’s in my make-up!  I’m always looking to improve and get better.  At one time I would have said a full time role in an Academy would have been my ideal role but as I’ve developed I enjoy the strategy side of the role I have here at the Foundation.

For me, as long as I am enjoying what I do and feel as though I am contributing effectively I will continue to strive towards excellence.

The first six interviews in the Blueprint According To... series are now collected in an e-book that is for sale here for just €0.99.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Reasons For Atalanta's Success With Youths

This is the second in a two part series on Atalanta BC.  The first part can be read here.

Given that they are continuously faced by clubs with far larger resources, the fact that Atalanta not only compete well at a national youth level but have actually registered a number of important wins in their history is perhaps the biggest proof of the quality of work that they do.

Contrary to what some presume there are no secrets to their success, just a number of factors that when put together contribute to a system that is far better than most at doing what it should be doing: developing players who are good enough to play for the club at the highest level.

Coaches
Although this might seem obvious, it is often overlooked when reasons for a youth system’s success are looked at.  No matter how good the ideas, regardless of the quality of the players that are recruited and irrespective of the amounts invested in facilities there can be no success if there aren’t the right coaches in place.

This means that the coaches must be able to pass on their knowledge to those put in their charge; competent people who are the right fit with the age group that they are assigned to and who know how to help the individuals progress.  

But there is more to it than that.  They have to be people who know in detail what the club is trying to achieve and how their teams play.  They know the value that is placed on technique and creativity, attributes that are encouraged here more than anywhere else in Italy.

More significantly, they must be fully convinced that it is the best way to proceed.  If that conviction is missing then sooner or later it will come out and it will show in their work.

True to form, Atalanta are very selective in deciding who gets a job within their Settore Giovanile (Youth Sector) with their preference frequently falling on individuals who have gone through their system or have played for the club.  Their Under 18 side is coached by Valter Bonacina (265 games for Atalanta) whilst their Under 16s are in the hands of Sergio Porrini (100 games for Atalanta as well as a Champions League winner with Juventus).

It has always been that way: current Italian national team manager (and a man with 116 appearances in the black and blue shirts) Cesare Prandelli spent almost a decade working within the Atalanta youth system handling various age groups before he took his first steps in the pro game.

And that is how it will continue to be because it ensures the presence of people who have gone through the experience themselves.  There is no one who can be as convinced about the system’s validity more than those whose careers have largely been the result of the work they did within that same system.

For the kids placed in their charge they are examples of what might be achieved if they work hard enough.  Or, if the coach isn’t someone who progressed beyond playing for Atalanta’s youth sides, there is confirmation that the club will keep on looking out for you regardless of how good you happen to be.

Stay Local
As with most Italian sides, Atalanta have very close links with a number of youth clubs.  These clubs, usually village sides or teams from particular neighbourhoods, get backing from the professional teams either in the form of coaching or else financial (the sums aren’t typically very significant ones but enough to help them cover some expenses like new kits) in exchange for informing them about any particularly talented individual they come across.

It is a very healthy symbiosis where the professional sides put something back into the grassroots game while ensuring that they cast as wide a net as possible to discover talents.

Perhaps the big difference that Atalanta have with the rest is that, as much as possible, they try recruit locally.  That is not to say that there haven’t been exceptions –there have been recruits from South America, Eastern Europe and Africa – but these are largely one-offs.  

Instead Atalanta go for local boys with the main reason again being cultural: these players have less of a hard time to integrate and settle in, making their footballing education run all the smoother.

No One Is Left Behind
At many clubs, the future of a lot of players is sacrificed in order to ensure that the one or two who are seen as the brightest prospects manage to develop and their talents maximised.  Others put their focus on the team results, looking to boost their profile by winning at youth level but without succeeding in the ultimate goal of any youth system which is that of seeing any talent progress into the first team.

Not so Atalanta where every player is important.  The progress of each individual who enters their system is tracked with coaches setting goals for each one which are then communicated and agree by the players.  This ensures that everyone knows what they have to work on and where they need to improve.  Whether they do so, and to what extent, allows the people at the club to determine what comes next and how they can ensure that there is further progress.  There is absolute commitment from the part of the club that when an eight year old is signed everything will be done so that he goes all the way.

The fact that some of these players even get opportunities coaching within the youth sector, allowing to have a career in football even if it isn’t a player, helps reinforce the image of Atalanta as a club that genuinely cares for ‘its boys’.

Equally, their commitment to local players avoids the (common) situation where a player who has come through the junior ages is suddenly forced out with his place going either to someone brought in either from another Italian club or else from overseas. 

Club Culture
Any manager who comes in at Atalanta will be well aware of what the club is all about and must be willing to work within those parameters.  This means that they must be willing to play the club’s young players, giving them the opportunities to grow and show their worth.  This also means that if a player attracts the attention of a bigger side then they must be ready to lose him if a good enough offer comes in.

Atalanta offers managers a great opportunity to forge their reputations – as many have done – but it also offers a challenge that is unique in Italian football.

Current manager Stefano Colantuono knows all about it.  His first spell in charge ended when he moved to Palermo, lured by the promise of a club with the reputation of more heightened ambition than Atalanta.  Yet his time there ended after just a few months; engulfed by the chaos and lack of patience of a club that is the polar opposite to Atalanta.

It is an experience that probably helped him understand and appreciate better both what he has at Atalanta and also what he has to do.  

Out of the fifteen players who made more than ten appearances last season – one in which they comfortably retained their top flight status - six (Daniele Baselli, Gian Bellini, Giacomo Bonaventura, Davide Brivio, Andrea Consigli and Cristian Raimondi roughly 40%) came from their youth team.  Plenty more got their first taste of Serie A with Colantuono testing them to see how they would do.  

Of those who played regularly, the most impressive was attacking midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura who earned an Italy cap and was close to making it into their World Cup squad.  Yet he is unlikely to be there when the season kicks off again in September, continuing a tradition of seeing their best players move to bigger sides.

To replace him, and to strengthen the team, Atalanta look first and foremost within.  That might seem as an obvious place to start but it is a big departure from other clubs’ normal practise.  

In truth, Atalanta do their best to assist their players’ development.  As with many other Italian clubs, they send a lot of players out on loan (in excess of forty last season) all over the country at different levels.  The fact in itself that a lot of these have come through Atalanta’s system is a guarantee of their potential, meaning that there are many willing to take a bet on their youngsters.

The progress of these players is monitored closely.  The main aim is that of seeing how they handle the experience, looking for indications as to whether they can step up.  But it is also a way of putting these players in the shop window, giving them the best opportunity of making a career out of football even if it isn’t in Atalanta’s colours. 

If you enjoyed this article you will probably enjoy our debut e-book Blueprint for Football According To...Volume 1 where six football coaches with experiences from around the world talk about their blueprint for the game.

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Monday, June 9, 2014

When It Is Too Early To Predict

Coming at around the same time that Greg Dyke was announcing his plans for English football which included the proposed introduction of B teams, one would have expected the Under 17s participation in the European Championship of the age category to receive greater publicity.  Instead it went by largely un-noticed until they reached the final (which they won) at which point everyone suddenly got excited.

That England eventually won (and on penalties!) did little to diminish enthusiasm and rightly so because the team was made up of a number of genuinely talented individuals.  Whether it was the best team or not is debatable – the technique of the Portuguese, where every player on the pitch looked an exquisite passer of the ball, was extremely impressive - yet they won when it mattered which is a great lesson to learn at that age.

And that is what these tournaments are for: learning.  Playing against in a different climate against teams who adopt different approaches to the game provide them with challenges that they don’t normally come across, meaning that they have to come up with new solutions in order to win.  These games will serve as the building blocks on which they can build their careers, and the experience will be stored for future reference.  For sure, they will have less fear of penalty kicks, given the confidence with which they dispatched them.

Inevitably, this point got lost once they won with the effort going instead on identifying which player could be billed as the most talented of this generation.

The truth is that it is very difficult to predict what will happen to any of these players.  They are too young and their bodies have too much development to go through to be able to discern what will happen of them.

For proof of this one only has to look at the list of top scorers from previous editions.  Going through the five editions held between 2005 and  2009 (i.e. players who today are aged between 21 and 26) the only one that you could probably count as a genuine star of the game is Toni Kroos.  Others like Victor Moses and Luc Castignos have had fairly respectable careers so far and could push on to reach another level.

The majority, however, have descended into anonymity.  Players like Lennart Thy, Yannis Tafer, Manuel Fischer, Tomas Necid and Tevfik Kose have ended up playing in lower divisions or minor leagues.  Not that there is any disgrace in that, anything but, yet it is a far cry from what their early success hinted could lie in store for them.

For a lot of players, those age category tournaments end up being the highlight of their career, something from which there are two lessons to take.  The first is one that is often mentioned which is that at those ages it is more important that players learn rather than winning.  But, and this is the second lesson, if they do win it is important that they be allowed to enjoy the experience because it might, literally, be the only one shot of glory they ever get.

If you enjoyed this article you will probably enjoy Blueprint for Football Extra, our (completely free) bi-weekly newsletter.  And, you should also enjoy our debut e-book Blueprint for Football According To...Volume 1 where six football coaches with experiences from around the world talk about their blueprint for the game.

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Friday, June 6, 2014

Atalanta: The Italian Talent Factory

This is the first in a two part series focusing on Atalanta.  The second part can be read here.

When people talk about clubs who have managed to develop a system that consistently brings through talented players, they’re usually referring to the big continental giants whose success stories are well known; teams like Barcelona, Ajax, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

There are, however, other clubs who are just as successful – perhaps even more – at developing players but whose work gets far less recognition because they do not have the same platform on which to showcase their results.

Atalanta is one of those clubs.  When in 2011 the CIES Football Observatory ranked clubs by the number of players whom they had produced and who were playing top flight football across Europe, Atalanta came eighth, the highest placed Italian side on the list and ahead of a lot of continental heavyweights whose investment far exceeds theirs.

Yet, outside of Italy they are virtually unknown something that is partly down to the fact that except for a Coppa Italia won in 1962 they have never registered any success at national, let alone international, level.  This anonymity is also caused by the way in which their model works which, stripped down, essentially equates to this: bring a player through, give him room to develop, sell him, plough back the money into the system and bring the next one through.

It is an efficient and self-sustaining model that has seen the club develop into the biggest ‘provincial’ side in Italian football, something that is a success in itself.  Of course, the fact that their young players keep finding room in the first team – something that the regular sale of top players ensures – is one of the reasons why they are so good at it; players simply get the opportunities that they wouldn’t necessarily get elsewhere.

What this is not, however, is a strategy that allows whoever is managing the side to build year on year.  There are years that are better than others (and, conversely, some which are worse than others) but long term success is unlikely.

That is something that is accepted and embraced.  Fans might not enjoy seeing  one good player after another getting sold so that they can fulfil their potential elsewhere yet they’ve come to realise that this strategy has allowed them to progress beyond many other clubs as well as giving them occasional joys of bloodying the noses of the big sides.

It is a system that works well for them.  Yet it is also one that is always in danger with predators lurking everywhere.

Whereas other Italian clubs have traditionally given Atalanta time to develop their players, making their moves only after they had played for the senior side and proved that there was more to them than potential, English clubs aren’t that patient.

Over the past decade, Atalanta have lost three of their brightest talents – Samuele Dalla Bona, Vito Mannone and Jacopo Sala – to Premiership clubs as soon as these players were out of school.  There could be more losses along the way with fifteen year old Christian Capone being rumoured to be interesting Liverpool.

With Atalanta receiving little or nothing for these players, the risk is that their whole model can be ruined.  The simple truth for them is that they need to generate certain amounts in transfer fees to keep on funding the whole system, something that is unlikely to happen if their brightest prospects are stolen away before they’re anywhere near reaching full maturity.

Unfortunately, there is little that they can do.  Their best option is to point at the lengthy list of players that have managed to play at the highest level thanks to the education and opportunity that they got at Atalanta.  It is a strong argument and, hopefully, one that will ensure that the list keeps growing longer.

The Atalanta Production Line
Atalanta have always been proficient at developing players with the likes of Gaetano Scirea and Antonio Cabrini – both of whom would go on to become Juventus legends – as well as Roberto Donadoni coming through the ranks.

Yet the club really pivoted its attention on to youth in the late eighties, providing Italian football with some of its finest players.  Here are some examples. 

Riccardo Montolivo
Spotted as an eight year old, he would make his first team debut ten years later at the start of a season where Atalanta where in the Serie B.  His talent immediately came to the fore and he promptly became a regular helping the side to promotion.  The following season he would retain his place in the side and, even though Atalanta would go on to finish last, he had shown enough for Fiorentina to move in and sign him.

Alessandro Tacchinardi
Having initially started out at his home-town side of Pergocrema, Tacchinardi was signed by Atalanta and placed in their youth sides.  In 1992 he made his first team debut and immediately caught the attention of Juventus who would sign him before he made ten appearances for Atalanta.  It would turn out to be a wise choice as Tacchinardi would go on to form one of the best midfields in Europe.

Massimo Donati
After progressing through all the youth ranks at Atalanta, Donati made his first team debut at the start of the 1999-2000 season going on to make 20 appearances as the side successfully battled to get out of the Serie B.  He would play even more the following year (26 appearances) in the Serie A convincing AC Milan to make a move for him. 

Giampaolo Pazzini
Pazzini was in the same youth side as Montolivo and, like him, made his first team debut in 2003-04, scoring nine goals as Atalanta won promotion.  The following season he found goals a bit harder to come by yet, even so, he wasn’t allowed to finish the season at the club because by January they had received an offer from Fiorentina that was too good to refuse.

Domenico Morfeo
Of the players on this list, Morfeo is perhaps the least known yet he was a supremely talented player who perhaps should have made more of his abilities.  Spotted by Atalanta as a fourteen year old, he made his debut at just 17, scoring three times in nine games.  Despite Morfeo’s contribution, Atalanta were relegated that season and, strangely, he would only play a bit-part role in the following season as they successfully won promotion back to the top flight.

Once there, Morfeo would get a starring role scoring eleven times in thirty appearances.  Having survived relegation, Morfeo opted to remain at the club but injuries restricted him to 26 appearances (and five goals) as Atalanta were relegated.  That summer he moved to Fiorentina.

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Monday, May 26, 2014

Following Tim Sherwood's Example

Watching Tim Sherwood morph from a respected coach who had done very good things within the Tottenham youth set-up into the laughing stock of English football was quite remarkable especially as the transformation was achieved in such a short period of time.  

For sure, Sherwood didn’t help himself with his antics on the side-lines and his jocularity when talking to the media.  His evident passion for the job didn’t seem to help; if anything it counted against him by making him seem like a typical British manager who prefers heart over tactical guile.  

Even so, the amount of derision over his time as Tottenham manager was surprising.  Everything that he did was written off and within a few weeks of his appointment it had almost been decided that he wasn’t going to be staying beyond the end of the season.

Ultimately that proved to be the case yet, unfashionable as that might seem, there are decisions that Sherwood made which deserve to be highlighted and praised.

Prime among those decisions is his willingness to look within in order to strengthen Tottenham’s squad.  Contrary to most managers, for whom the default reaction upon being put in charge of a new team is that of asking for new players, Sherwood turned instead to the youth players who had been given so few opportunities by his predecessor.

Nabil Bentaleb and Harry Kane became pretty much regular fixtures whilst Zeki Fryers also got plenty of first team exposure.  None of this trio proved to be out of place with Bentaleb in particular proving that Tottenham could have avoided signing at least one of the central midfielders they got last summer.

It is unlikely that within the club people weren’t aware of the potential of these players.  Even so, Tottenham opted to spend millions to bring in players who not only weren’t needed but also were going to block the development of those youths in whom so much had been invested.

Football clubs increasingly like to see and refer to themselves as businesses.  In truth, there is no business in the world that would spend around £5 million a year on its Research & Development - which is what clubs typically spend on academies - and then dismiss out-of-hand anything that came out of that investment.  Because effectively that is what most clubs are doing by putting so little effort in ensuring that the players coming out of their youth system are good enough and get the opportunities to prove their worth.  

It is baffling how clubs can willingly change managers without ensuring that these will give youth the focus that it deserves.  And it is a sign of the excess money that there is within the game at the highest level that they keep on signing players for the first team regardless of what is coming through.  

The lack of continuity planning is astounding.  Sherwood, for all his faults, was doing something to validate Tottenham’s investment.   Sadly, his immediate sacking validates the actions of those who take a more sanguine approach to management.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Blueprint According To...Jason Withe



It is never easy when you’re trying to make a name in your father’s world, especially when your father was a legend.   This is true in any walk of life – how many have taken up a profession because that is what their father did, only to find themselves crushed by the expectation? – but perhaps even more so in sport where one’s abilities and achievements are so public.   Often, these comparisons end up crippling one’s development and killing any chances of their own achievements being judged on their own merit. 

At least that is how it looks from the outside.   Because I’ve rarely found any bitterness or resentment when talking to sons of famous players.  Instead there is an appreciation that their upbringing gave them an insight into the world of football that others were not privy to. 

That is also the case with Jason Withe, the son of European Cup winner - a scorer of the winner in the final - Peter Withe.   Indeed, he’s had a career with which he’s very satisfied and has managed to build on the experiences that he’s had in order to forward his coaching career.   He’s looked at every coach he’s had and taken from them the lessons that he felt were valid to him. 

Now he’s paying it back by being on an FA Mentor, the role created to provide upcoming coaches with guidance should they feel the need for it.   Surprisingly, there are many that feel that they don’t need such assistance just as there are many coaches who do not feel the need to constantly educate themselves. 

Not Jason, however, for whom education has been a constant throughout his professional life and for whom this is a cornerstone of his blueprint for the game. 

Blueprint for Football: Let's start with the basics: at what point in your career did you decide that you wanted to coach and what led you to take that decision?
Jason Withe: I was doing a scholarship at West Bromwich Albion Fc and had just signed a professional contract. Part of my scholarship was that we had to complete our FA Preliminary award which is equivalent to an FA Level 2.  I was 17 at the time and it was the first time I had stood in front of people and delivered a coaching session it was something that came very natural to me and something I enjoyed.  After passing my FA preliminary I then started coaching my younger brother’s team during midweek and helping out on a Sunday.  Although I was trying to carve out a career as a professional footballer I was enjoying passing on knowledge I was learning as a player.  

Also, I realised that even if I played until I was 30-35 I would then need a second career and my intention was to learn as much as I could as a player then pass that knowledge on.  I started writing down coaching sessions from managers and coaches I worked with.  Although my playing career didn't go the way I had hoped I worked with some great managers and coaches drawing knowledge from people like; Nobby Stiles, Ron Saunders, Sam Allardyce, Ron Atkinson, Brian Talbot, Dario Gradi, Jimmy Mullen, Dave Jones, Danny Bagara, Gary Johnson, John Beck to name a few who I had the privilege of working with.  

I bounced around a few clubs struggling to make any real impact on the game as a player.  Then, after I had to have an operation which put me out of the game a while, I was offered a job running the Birmingham City Fc community programme.   I was left with the decision of continuing trying to make it as a player or a steady career of coaching at grass roots level.  I choose the coaching route and although I missed the playing side coaching was really the next best thing.     

BfF: What sort of impact has having a famous father had on your career?
JW: I had a very privileged upbringing and everywhere my father went I was always by his side, every school holiday I was at the training ground of which ever club he was playing watching him train and then games every weekend.  This actually had a big impact on me as a child and although I didn't realise it at the time I was watching some of the greats at work.
  
It was as a player that I found it most difficult.  My father was a big bustling centre forward in the traditional number 9 role winning championships with Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa as well as winning the European Cup, scoring the winning goal in the final.  Even at Sunday League level the spotlight was always on me from opposition players and people watching so it did become difficult at times but you have to take the rough with the smooth and I wouldn't have changed it at all.

Being 6ft 4 inches and playing in the same position people would instantly make comparisons.  I chose West Bromwich Albion because it was one of the only clubs in the midlands he hadn't played for and, with him being a Villa legend, the West Brom fans didn't warm to me too much.  In hindsight, I should have taken the opportunity to sign for Dario Gradi at Crewe as had a reputation of bringing youngsters through the system but you think the bigger club is the better option.  

Once I decided to go into coaching the comparisons stopped because as a coach or manager you aren't being compared as much.   

BfF: Apart from your father, have you had any mentors in your career?
JW: I'm actually an FA Mentor delivering the FA Mentoring Qualification so it's something I have studied and looked at for some time now.  I wouldn't say my father has mentored me directly either as a player or a coach.  He has always been there if I needed any advice but he has let me make my own decisions and never interfered.  

I would say the best advice he gave me was get my coaching qualifications because as a player you never know how long your career is going to last and this set me on the path of learning.  It is probably difficult being in the same industry and being a father but we get the balance about right.  

I can't actually say that I have a mentor myself as I'm very strong willed and a deep thinker about things and feel confident in my own decisions but I have met and know a lot of people in the game who I can bounce ideas off or pick up the phone for advice.
  
Once I had started looking into mentoring I realised that a lot of people directly or indirectly have helped shape me as a coach and as a person.  I have had a lot of mentoring indirectly as I do a lot of watching, listening and reading the only danger in this is that you can sometimes be overloaded with information so I have had to be strong in your own beliefs. 

I actually set a career path for myself which involves constant learning and I revisit this plan every six months to see if I'm on track or if it needs updating, I'm a great believer in self-analysis and I am always looking at ways of doing things better.  

I remember reading Sir Clive Woodward's book a few years ago called winning and he talks a lot about critical non essentials.  This is something I have applied to myself as a coach making those small changes can make a huge difference.         

BfF: I've noticed that you've tried to look at the work of a number of managers in order to see what you can learn from them.   How much is learned from attending coaching courses and how much is learned by observing other coaches and reading about coaching?
JW: A few months ago I started to look at my own CPD as you are required as a Licensed FA coach and FA Licensed Tutor to fulfil a number of set hours CPD depending on your level of qualifications, so I started to write down all the courses I've been on, all the seminars I have attended, all the days I've attended watching other coaches working and all the courses I have delivered as a tutor.  

Once I started putting these into hours I was astounded how many hours turned into days, days into weeks and weeks into months.  I've spent around 200 days on courses which is roughly 1,760 hrs.  I have spent around 290 days 2,359 hours on visiting other managers - coaches, seminars or other relevant coaching events this is not including games watched.  I have spent 378 hours on required FA tutor training and 14,218 hours spent actually delivering qualifications.  

I then started looking into the amount of books, videos / DVDs about football and business I have read or watched and this does not include all of the informal discussions surrounding football I have had.  So I would like to think I'm putting the hours in!

I was one of the youngest coaches to achieve my FA Full Badge as it was in those days now UEFA 'A' License and remember it dawning on me what the hell am I going to do next I had climbed the highest level as a coach so my learning had to take a sudden halt which was very frustrating because I have a thirst for knowledge.  So I started observing other coaches and managers working.  

I was lucky enough to spend 3 weeks observing Arsene Wenger working at Arsenal in preparation for Champions League and Premier League games.  I watched Sir Alex Fergusson at Manchester United prepare his team for pre-season training and many other coaches and managers working.  The key to all of this is applying it to yourself watching both Sir Alex and Arsene prepare their teams very differently, both getting success in different ways so there isn't one way of getting success and you have to pick out what works and doesn't fit for you as a coach or manager.
  
I was informed by a FIFA instructor that I was probably the most qualified coach in the world which was a little surprising that more coaches haven't followed the same path.  I am bewildered why some coaches can't find the time to educate themselves more.  

I remember working abroad and having time off at the end of the season and going back to England to see family.  Rather than sit around doing nothing for three weeks the FA was running a goalkeeping 'B' License so I enrolled myself and found myself sitting there in a room of 40 goalkeeper coaches and being the only one on the course who had never played in goal.  There were four ex-England international goalkeepers on the course and I was asked by one of the guys on the course why the hell was I there having never played in goal.  My answer was if the goalkeeper is so important to the team then I need to educate myself as a coach as I know nothing about goalkeeping so more of a reason for me to be there.  I passed the course and enrolled to do the Goalkeeping 'A' License the following year which I am one of a small number to achieve this and the only non-goalkeeper to achieve this award.  I have a saying that I try to apply to myself everyday.  "If you want to teach then dedicate yourself to learning".

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy?
JW: Wow, where do I start with this question!  I was invited onto the UEFA / FA Pro License course in 2006 and I was chatting with Aidy Boothroyd who was managing Watford at the time about coaching philosophies and he told me he had completed 500 pages on his own personal philosophy.  Of course this got me really thinking and asking myself about my beliefs and philosophy.  

I hadn't gotten anything on paper and if I had been asked the question in the past I could probably sum it up in a sentence, 'I like to play a possession based game playing attractive football through the thirds that's both entertaining and attacking'.  Sounds great but in reality if I give you the scenario that your team is losing the first leg of a game 2-0 and your job and lively hood is on the line does this still apply?  Scenario 2 you have inherited a team that don't play possession based football and have a number of players who aren't up-to the task of playing that style of football but are on long term contracts so you have to stick with them for the time being?  Scenario 3 you have been given the role as head of youth and your main role is to produce players for the first team, does your philosophy change as this is now more player focused?  You are employed by a club as a coach and the manager has a completely different philosophy than yours?

These are just some of the scenarios I found myself in and some questions I was asking myself while putting my philosophy together.  So I started to break it down piece by piece and I started with what is true to me and my personal beliefs.

My core values are hard work, honesty, discipline, task focus, respect, fairness, growth and enjoyment from not only myself but everyone I work with from club owners, staff and players.  Within these core values are a number of sub-values such as competitiveness, challenge, trust, open minded to ideas, ownership, innovation, creativity and setting the right environment for coaches and players to learn and express themselves.  

I found this applies whoever I'm working with and will never change.  

I then put a document together that covers all areas from youth to senior football.  

If you look at Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich has he adapted his playing philosophy from his time at Barcelona? Of course he has; he now has different players at Bayern with different strengths so he has adapted his tactics but has his personal core philosophy changed?

BfF: Is winning important for you?
JW: The honest answer is yes, whatever I am playing I'm playing to win and if it wasn't important then why do we bother keeping score?  It is in my DNA to give everything I can to win and if I don't then I ask myself what I need to do to improve and win the next time.

Is winning more important to me when my lively hood is at risk and my neck is on the line? This is senior football and working at the higher end? Well the answer is a definite yes.  Is winning important to me when I'm head of youth and watching the U9 play?  Then definitely not. I'm looking at players technical abilities and are they improving and getting better. 

There is a lot of talk and work being done about focussing purely on player development and I do get this as I'm always preaching to grass roots coaches that their focus needs to be less results based and more on player development.  So an understanding of where you are working is needed.  Even my time working in professional youth development was simply about producing players so if we came bottom of the league and 4 or 5 players got into the first team they was then job done.
  
I must say that I've never worked with players - and this applies to all ages - that actually enjoy loosing.  So we mustn't lose focus of the winning aspect but putting things into perspective of what your role is at your club.  

I would also add it doesn't matter what level you are coaching or working, your job is to improve players and players want to improve and get better.  If you can do this, the knock on effect is you will improve the team if you improve the team then results will follow.  So when working in grass roots and youth football getting the balance between winning and development is important.   

BfF: What are the most important attributes of players in your teams?
JW: There are four key areas for me although sometimes you only get two or three and have to do a lot of work in certain areas to improve players. If you get all four you have hit the jackpot. 

First and foremost is technical ability.  I like players who are technically gifted with the ball and comfortable with both feet being prepared to receive the ball under pressure.  

Secondly I like players who have intelligence and speed of thought both individually and tactically.  

The third thing I look for in players is their physical attributes with the main focus on speed.  There are many aspects covering the physicalities for a football player and many of these can be improved with the right sports science.  However speed is the only one that I find that only small improvements can be made so looking at a player’s speed over short and long distances is important.
  
Finally there is mental strength both on and off the pitch.  I find this the most difficult as a coach to affect because this is usually something that you struggle to give a player.   The other three can be greatly affected and improved by sound coaching and expertise but the mental side can take a lot longer.   I'm not saying you can't improve it but it can be the most difficult.  Getting players to be professional both on and off the pitch is always a battle with certain individuals.      

BfF: You've worked a lot with youth teams.   What must be in place for a development programme to work? What must one get right?
JW: First and foremost is having the right environment and this doesn't just mean in regards to facilities but the right environment for learning in the right culture.  As a young player I went to many top professional clubs and had offers from many of these clubs to sign as a scholar but it was lowly Crewe Alexandra spearheaded by Dario Gradi that had the family feeling and made you feel important.  The manager coached players, came to games and everyone was in it together and most importantly they had a style of football that was enjoyable to be part of.
  
Secondly it's all about the coaches delivering the philosophy or vision.  You can have the best coaching programme but if you haven't got the right coaches to deliver this programme it is a waste of time.  I've seen too many players suffer because they don't like the coach and when I ask players why they left a certain club too many times I hear 'I didn't get on with the coach' which for me is a crying shame.  

Of course having the best players helps but if you don't have a route upwards it's always difficult to sign players.  I feel too many players fall into the trap of signing for the biggest clubs but fail to look at the one most important factor:  do they have a chance of playing in the first team?  So it helps if clubs especially the manager at the top is prepared to take a chance on throwing young players into the first team.   

BfF: You've also coached in a number of countries.   How do you prepare for coaching in a different country?
JW: You have to embrace the culture.  I made the mistake when I first went to Thailand as Head Coach of BEC Tero Sasana Fc in taking an attitude that I was a British coach and this is the way we did things so this WAS the best way.  Well, unfortunately what works in England doesn't necessarily work elsewhere and I realised quickly that I had to adapt and make small changes at a time.  

When I worked with the Indonesian National team preparing them for a tournament it fell right at the start of Ramadan, so again learning and embracing a new culture was important as well as adapting coaching and fitness sessions was majorly important.    

The other major problem is language, when I first went to Thailand I had a translator who I found out from some of the players wasn't translating finer details to the players.  So there are two options: learn the language or get a better translator.  I ended up getting the players who spoke English to translate and I learnt the language enough to get my message across.  

We sometimes forget that football is a world sport and we live in a bit of a bubble in the UK where we only look at our own domestic game.  

Just to let you know how popular football is in places where you wouldn't really follow football, while I was working in Indonesia we turned up for our home game 2 hours before kick-off and there were 60,000 in the stadium. This number doubled by kick off and the atmosphere was electric. 

BfF: Can you tell us, coaching wise, what was different in each country?  And are there universal truths?
JW: I've mentioned about the language and culture which in my experience is always different in each country I've worked but I find coaching players the same where ever you go.  I'm currently coaching in Thailand for PTT Rayong FC who play in the Thai Premier league and we have seven different nationalities.  I find all players want to improve and get better whether you are working with junior or senior players, some might need more help than others but they all want to get better.  The only problem I find, especially working with so many different nationalities, is sometimes the time it takes to get the message across; stopping training to explain something can take a while.     

BfF: You currently work a lot in Asia.   What is the overall level of football you've come across and what rate of development have you seen since you've been working there?
JW: I first came out to Asia in 1999 and spent 8 years coaching in various countries; Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia.  I also spent some time in Australia which is now part of the AFC.  Generally players this side of the world are technically proficient with the ball but can lack tactically and physically against more western cultures. 

Can players here in Asia play at a higher level?  I definitely think so.  Do they get the opportunity?  No.  This might be to do with FIFA ranking.  For example the best Thai player here could not sign for a club in the UK because Thailand's ranking is so low meaning that freedom of movement for players is a problem.  

BfF: What needs to be done to develop further?
JW: The Infrastructure needs improving.  By this I mean experts in the right fields need to be brought in.  You will see lots of staff here but once you actually drill down into their skill set you find it very limited.  An example of this they recently delivered an AFC 'A' License here in Thailand and it took 1 month to complete. When I enquired about the content of the course I was told it was hard work and they finished late at night sometimes 8pm!  When I told them it takes around 2 years to complete a UEFA 'A' License in the UK they couldn't believe it.  So who gets more knowledge? This is why foreign expertise is brought in.  

When I first worked as a head coach here I had six members of staff - including the translator - but after seeing their skill sets I ended up doing all the technical and tactical coaching, fitness work, goalkeeping coaching.  This wasn't me being a control freak this was getting the job done properly.  

The other major area that needs improving here is scouting for both players and opposition.  When a player is signed it is usually done by the owner or head coach without any real due-diligence.  I am a consultant for a company called scout7 covering Asia and we work with many of the top teams in Europe and currently showing clubs this part of the world why scouting players and opposition reports analysis are so important.  

Unfortunately many clubs haven't got the expertise or see the benefits.

BfF: What do you want to achieve to be satisfied with what you have done in your coaching career?
JW: I have put a lot of time and effort to educate myself in all aspects of the game which will always be a continuous process.  I have worked at all levels of the game from grass roots, youth, scouting, director of football, assistant & Head Coach, at domestic and national teams so I have certainly put the hours in and gained experience at all levels.  

I am fundamentally a coach and enjoy being on the field coaching and working with teams and I most enjoy working with Elite players.  

As a highly qualified and experienced coach you want to coach at the highest level and test myself against the best managers and coaches in the world.   I feel I have a lot to offer and believe in my own philosophy and talent it's just a case of waiting for the right opportunity to come along which I have been preparing for my whole life.   

More information on Jason Withe can be found on his site or by getting in touch on Twitter.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Being A Football Manager Is Easy, Isn't It?

Whilst writing about football is for me a highly enjoyable part of my daily routine, it is not what I do for a living.  My daily bread is earned by working within the strategy team at a fairly big company.

Part of the job involves thinking of new products that we could launch so as to ensure that the strategies that have been laid out get achieved.  It is a specialised job for where you’re constantly learning and, the more you learn, the better you get at it.

Regularly, however, I come across people from other areas of the company who are forthcoming with what they perceive as brilliant ideas.  Often, the “why aren’t you doing x or y?” questions are delivered with a tone that mixes disbelief and shock over us not thinking of it.*

In short, everyone thinks that they can do our job.  It is only when you start asking back some questions that the tone changes.  How much would it cost?  How niche is it?  What would it sell for? Can our systems deliver it?

It is only when you start getting into the detail that people start to appreciate that it might not be as straightforward as they’d thought.

Sometimes, I get the feeling that it is the same with football management.

From the outside looking in, it is an easy job.  Just select the best players you’ve got and, if they’re not good enough, buy better players.  Easy, no?

All this came to the fore with the increasing clamour to have Ryan Giggs appointed as the manager of Manchester United.  Whilst Giggs has undoubtedly had a fantastic playing career and is someone who thinks deeply about the game, are those sufficient qualifications to take such a job?  

Can he, for instance, interpret the statistical information that is increasingly coming out of football clubs’ analytical departments?  Can he deliver training sessions that not only prepare his players tactically but also ensure that there is no soft-tissue damage?  Will he be able to communicate with players coming in from abroad and different cultures?

This, of course, does not only apply just to Giggs – who might turn out to be a brilliant manager - but any prospective coach: the job is much harder and much more complex than many assume it is.  It isn’t simply saying “I want to play attractive and attacking football based on the possession game.”   That is why top coaches these days have dossiers that go into hundreds of pages in order to lay out their philosophy.  

There is so much to the game that to think that anyone can do it is not only naïve, frankly it is stupid.

* This is not to say that other people cannot come up with great ideas.  In fact, I’m a big believer in building an environment where people from all levels feel that they can come forward with their suggestions as the different experiences will trigger different ideas.  However, the fact remains that executing a lot of the ideas that people come up with isn’t as simple as they might think.

This article was written and sent out to the subscribers of Blueprint for Football Extra on the 28th of April 2014 (i.e. before Manchester United's home defeat to Sunderland).  If you want to know more about this free newsletter, check what it is all about here.

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