What was your most cherished possession as a child? Ask that question to anyone with an interest in football and more often than not you'll be told of some fancy pair of boots or a kit of their favourite team received as a gift at Christmas or on their birthday.
Even though years will have passed since they last wore them, they'll go on to describe every little detail about them and just what it was that made them special. More than their words, however, it is their faces that typically do most of the communicating as these usually light up at the memory of the games they used to play and the fun they had.
Not at Rhyl FC, however. “When a player signs for us they get their own football,” says the club’s manager Greg Strong. “We strongly believe that everything should be done with the ball.”
Given the money going around at the highest level of the game, this might seem like an insignificant gesture but for a club of Rhyl’s financial position it is quite significant. Yet it is an expense that they’re more than happy to undertake as it underlines all that they’re trying to achieve and how they’re going about it.
Central in all of this is the manager. After a professional career of around twenty years during which he took in seventeen clubs, Greg Strong was doing some coaching at Bolton’s academy whilst playing for Rhyl in the Welsh league. “I wanted to see whether I enjoyed it and it gave me a little taste,” he says, picking up the narrative. “But then I was I was offered the manager’s job here at Rhyl. It came out of the blue but I’ve learned a lot working here; I have really enjoyed it.”
But, whilst the offer might have surprised him, it didn’t find him unprepared. “I have my own beliefs on how the game should be played. I believe that everything should be done with the ball at the players’ feet. All players should enjoy playing football.”
“What I've tried to do is put a stamp on how the game is played. We do take chances and sometimes we overplay but ultimately I believe in that system. Other than that, I always go for players with ambition because you need that desire to succeed.”
“What I did to start off was to get the first team playing in the way that I want it. Once I did that I started looking at the rest of the club’s set up,” he continues.
“At the time, in the reserves there were a lot of local boys who were in their late twenties. It was a team for the sake of having a team and none of them had any prospect of making it into the first team.”
“So I convinced people that we had to do it properly and let the reserves be for our good, young players. We were in a ridiculous situation that we trained kids for eight years but when they reached sixteen years of age we let them go because there was nowhere for them to progress. It made sense to change the reserves to an Under 21 team providing a pathway to keep the players on board.”
“We got the players and manager on board, training and playing in the same way as the first team so that if they moved up it would all be familiar. Each season that has come, we’ve been spreading our work further, moving into the Under 19 and the Under 16. Up till the age of 16 it is important that they understand and appreciate a number of systems but then at 16 they need to be playing in the manner of the first team if they are going to be seen as potential for the first team.”
Whilst there are many people who, like Strong, talk about the need to establish a style few establish what this involves.
“It is difficult especially because we are part-time,” Strong explains. “When we're together for two hours, I know that I have to get as much as possible into the session. On top of that there is also fitness that has to be handled within that same session. It is important that they are fit and we try to cover as many bases as possible. So we have to work very hard to explain what we want from the players.”
“I let them know what I expect from every position. I tell them what I want them to do in different situations. If this happens than you have to do that. As a player, I always preferred having such detailed instructions so I know that this makes their life easier as well.”
It helps that Strong has surrounded himself with a handpicked team of coaches. “I like to work with people I know and trust. They have all got the same believe in the same way of playing.”
“Any coach who is brought in is brought in by myself. I bring in people who I know and have worked with because it is important that they believe in what we’re doing.”
“Otherwise you might get people say that they believe in playing in this manner but don’t fully believe it. That would harm us because the players catch on if someone is not fully committed.”
It is a structure that has been bearing fruit. “In my first three years we had a player who went to Charlton, one who went to Macclesfield and then Ryan Williams who is now playing first team football in Morecambe.”
“The important thing is that we continue doing what we’re doing. Players see Rhyl as a shop window. We’ve just signed an Irish U21 international in Jonathan Breeze who was willing to take a step back to play in a system that suits him and get the right coaching sot that he can move on. We don't have a lot of money so being able to attract such players is a huge boost for us.”
Indeed, having an identity and a set way of playing helps Rhyl when it comes to looking for players. “If I'm looking for a holding midfield player then I know exactly what kind of player to look for and what characteristics are required.”
When people look at clubs like Barcelona or Ajax, where every team from the juniors to the seniors play in a similar manner, it is easy to appreciate just what this does for them and what an advantage it gives them. Yet, despite this, few clubs feel comfortable enough to let one person wield as much power as to shape the entire structure. It is something that Strong appreciates. “It is a risk, 100%.”
“At the beginning there was a tough time at the club financially. It was even more important for us that we laid good foundations at the club. Thankfully, the Club bought into my ideas. Hopefully with the success in recent seasons that belief has grown.”
Indeed, having been relegated to the Cymru Alliance (the second level of the Welsh football league system in north and central Wales) after their football licence was revoked in 2010, Rhyl won 24 games last season and drew the other 6 scoring 100 goals in the process to win back their place in the Welsh Premier League. On top of all that, the reserves registered a league and cup double.
“The proof is in the pudding. It won't work all the time but I believe in what we're doing and that it is the right way to go about it.”
“Our support has gone up and up and that is the result of the way that we play. If I was to get a team that plays direct way, I don't think that the crowds have gone up. People appreciate that there is a risk in the way we play but they know that when they get to watch our team they will be excited and entertained. “
“Football is a results business but I am a big believer that if we get the right players and play them in the right way then results will improve. It can be successful if we get it right.”
And, if they get it right, then there will be many lining up to offer Strong a bigger challenge. “I'm sure that I'm not different to anything else,” he admits with admirable frankness. “I surround myself by positive, ambitious people and would never sign a player who isn't ambitious. If a player were to come here and say that they wanted to sign because they think it will be easy for them, then I wouldn’t sign them. I want them to come in and see this as a stepping stone before they move on to bigger things.”
“It is the same for me. I want to manage as high as I possibly can. Naturally, whilst I’m here I’ll give it everything I have to be as successful as possible.”
All of which highlights the issue some clubs have with giving the manager control over every level of the club. Strong, however, doesn’t see a problem. “I think then it comes down to how much the board believe in what the manager has been doing. Not just his results but also how he was working.”
“If that’s the case then as far as the recruitment process is concerned, then they should be bringing in people with the same beliefs. Continuity is so important. If it isn't broken, don’t fix it.”
For now, however, he has no such thoughts. Those are reserved to the club’s academy. “We work in the local area and we're quite fortunate in that we have a good catchment area. Work very hard in picking the best player and there is a lot of work done with local clubs and schools; giving them coaching and helping out as much as possible. From them we get information about promising players whom we then invite for a trial”
“Because we have been successful as we have been pleasantly surprised in that people are now getting in touch with us. We’re being contacted by players who have released by academies at Liverpool and Everton, for example, because they know that with us they will be getting good coaching.”
It would seem that the ripples from Rhyl’s mini-revolution are extending ever further and, given how many bigger clubs are in dire need of a similar overhaul, long may that continue.