Blueprint for Football Volume 1 and Volume 2 (US versions here and here) are two e-books that contain 13 interviews with coaches talking about their ideas for football coaching.
Whenever there is a wave of despair that periodically seems to grip English football, particularly when the national team does poorly, the country’s youth system is proclaimed broken. It is a knee jerk reaction that generates attention grabbing headlines but which doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. Whilst the problems are highlighted, all the good that is being done is glossed over.
The big mistake made is that what is happening at certain big clubs is deemed as being symptomatic of what is happening all over the country. Clearly, that isn’t the case. Southampton are as good an example of a florid youth system as you’ll find all across Europe. So too are Aston Villa and neighbours West Bromwich Albion.
And it is those clubs that Brentford are trying to emulate.
The man at the heart of their project is Ose Aibangee. Appointed as head of the youth system three years ago, Aibangee had previously worked at Arsenal, Tottenham and Watford always in the youth sector. Since joining Brentford he has helped re-shaped the club’s youth set-up so much that they are now category two academy whose facilities have been improved with further investment, in the form of indoor training pitches, readily available.
In short, this is a club that firmly sees their youth system as the best guarantee for future success and who are acting on that belief.
“Fortunately, when I came here it was a blank sheet,” he says, talking of his experiences at Brentford. “They pretty much said to me that I could run it how wanted to run it. Naturally, I gave the board of directors an indication of what my ideas were, to let them know what I wanted to achieve and how to do it.”
“In such an environment it is easy to work, because on a blank sheet you can write anything. It took us 18 months to build a foundation from which to progress. I’ve been in the post for three years and I think that we now have a solid foundation.”
“The time it takes to establish a way of playing and start producing concrete results depends on the situation and differs from club to club,” he continues. “I think that at some clubs people do not appreciate what needs to go into getting to this point. My belief is that it takes a minimum of five years to get there and I have a real impression that you need ten.”
“In order to judge you have to look at the programme and start asking yourself ‘has it achieved the mid-term objectives?’ ‘And what about the long term objectives?’ However, within the first five years you have to make impression.”
Aibangee’s job at Brentford is all encompassing. “Basically I’m responsible for the football at the academy from U7’s up till the U21’s. This involves everything to do with development; training, scouting, everything. It all leads to our main objective which is that of having players good enough to progress to the first team.”
This also involves setting a philosophy that rules everything which takes place at the academy. “Our philosophy is based around maximising players' potential,” he explains. “That means building on what the players are good at and developing the other areas. We do that through a range of training drills with a lot of technical work, work on skills and practices to ensure that they keep on improving.”
One of the way with which Brentford are trying to improve their players’ technique is through futsal. “We use it with all players as part of our technical programme,” Ose explains. “Many years ago I went to Argentina looking at the coaching over there and one of the clubs that I visited was called Club Parque where a lot of their work was based on futsal.”
“I spoke to coaches and directors there to understand why they were doing that. The fact that you’re using a heavy ball in an indoor court with tight spaces means that you’re less inclined to kick the ball long and more likely to pass it over shorter distances.”
“A lot of times, players are making mistakes but they have to do that to be successful. With futsal you don't have to teach them to let them develop. There are a lot of areas where it is of great benefit; the control, their short range passing, the improvised passing, their creative play.”
“A lot of the work that they do has to be quick play and that is really important. Used in the right way, the skills that they learn in futsal can be transferred to the bigger picture.”
Whilst the way that players are coached is important for them to progress, the key element in the whole process remains the person who is doing the coaching.
“It is important that we get the right coaches here,” Ose confirms. “The coaches we have here understand children and understand how to communicate with children. Knowledge of football is important but the vital aspect is whether they can connect and inspire the children. Once they have got that then teaching the technical aspect becomes easy.”
“A lot of coaches want to work in youth football. Personally, I have no aspirations of working in first team football. I’d like to think that the coaches see themselves as developing a career in youth development. It takes right types of people to specialise in the right age range and coaches need to have an understanding of how to work in that age group. It is important that they see a career in the age range.”
Yet the most impressive aspect of Brentford’s system relates to who carries out the coaching of their youngest age group.
“For us every coach is important just as every child is important and every age group is important. That is why the person who coaches our 7 to 11 year olds is the head of our coaching programme; our senior coach.”
That final comment is indicative of the pervasive attitude within Brentford’s academy; one which is aiming for excellence but on their own terms. At most academies – not just in England but also around Europe – the most senior coach either coaches the oldest age group or else doesn’t coach at all. That is, after all, the conventional wisdom: just look at educational systems in most countries where the most experienced and capable teachers work with older kids.
Not here, however.
In essence, what they’re doing is getting a university professor, someone who has an in-depth appreciation and knowledge about the subject, to teach Grade 1 kids. It reflects both a powerful commitment to get the basics right and a strong belief in the way they do things.
That belief in their ability also comes through when the question as to how they handle the risk of players wanting to go to bigger academies is put to Ose.
“I don't see any bigger academies around us. It is the people that make a big academy. Playing in the Premier League or the Champions League doesn't make you big academy. We offer the best coaching, best staff and best way to develop players. I strongly believe that we're a big academy.”
“Where the first team is playing has nothing to do with the academy, the academy is about people,” he reiterates.
Indeed, it eventually transpires that people – and the relationships with them – are another important (and differentiating) factor at Brentford’s academy. “I think that it is important to be honest relationship. We challenge each other, if something is good we say it is good and if something needs to be improved then we provide the direction how to do that. Our entire relationship – between coaches, with players and their parents - is based on honesty.”
Regardless of how impressive the whole setup is – and it is very impressive – a lot still depends on the quality of players that you have. What, then, do Brentford look out for when signing players?
“It all depends on the age group,” he explains. “As a rule, for the young ages we look for kids who love football. They must take a lot of enjoyment from playing and must show hunger; they’re not happy when game finishes and constantly talk about the game. Naturally, they need some kind of attribute; awareness, physical or technical. We look for some kind of positive attribute that lifts them above the novice player.”
“As they get older you look a little bit more at their understanding of the game. You also look at their physical qualities and how they are developing. We want players who can cope physically, who understand the game and who can deal with the ball in tight situations.”
“In the senior phase it is all about the mental approach; their desire, hunger and competitiveness. Can they deal with failure and the pressure? We look for those signs that are an important indicator if they’re going to make it.”
That final aspect is particularly important given all the talk that there is about players not handling the step between reserves and first team which has often led to discussions over the best way forward. For Ose, however, there isn’t “one generic answer” to that problem.
“It depends on the individual. One 17 year-old may need to go on loan whilst another is ready for the first team. You have to look at the individual. Everyone has an individual learning assessment and part of that will involve how best to help them. Does he go on loan, does he keep training with us, should he go on loan to a lower division club or on loan abroad? We'll take a view based on the expertise, based on the solutions which will enable him to progress and become a professional footballer.”
That desire to have players progressing is what drives Ose and everyone else at the Brentford academy. “Ultimately you want to be in a position where on an annual basis you get players in your first team. In the next 2 to 3 years there will be players who will be supporting the first team in the squad and in the first eleven. A by-product of that would be players in the national side. We want them to go on and play at the highest level. That is the objective and we know we will do that.”
Special thanks go to Michael Calvin, author of ‘The Nowhere Men’, for his help in the setting up of this interview.