Before people spoke about the Barcelona model of developing players, there was only one talent factory as far as most were concerned and that was at Crewe. Dario Gradi joined the club in 1983 when it was one of the worst in the Football League and slowly built it up into one that launched the careers of some fine players, reinvesting the funds generated by their sale into the increasingly productive youth system.
Gradi was in many ways a visionary and he has undoubtedly been the architect of Crewe’s success but it is also partly down to the quality of coaches he has recruited to help him carry out his plan. Michael Jolley is one of these coaches, in what has already been a fascinating career for someone who is still in his mid-thirties; one that has seen him go from a Masters degree in Economics to his current coaching job at Crewe.
Michael Jolley: Hi Arnar – thank you for the opportunity to speak to you. As you say I am now coaching at Crewe Alexandra Academy under Dario Gradi, which is a great privilege for me. I am learning a huge amount from him and all the other staff at Crewe. I have been coaching for eight years and Crewe is my 5th professional club – I have been lucky to have coached in many different contexts and levels from the youngest academy players up to first team.
My background is probably a little bit unusual for a football coach because my degree is in Economics and I worked outside football at the start of my career. For example I was working as a trader in New York at the time of the 9/11 attacks.
My experience outside football has helped me to appreciate how fortunate I am now to have a full-time position coaching at such a great club. I think it has also helped me to appreciate what players can do rather than focusing too much on what they can’t. In the summer of 2013 I was one of 16 coaches to graduate from the first FA Elite Coaches Award, which challenged my thinking on a number of issues and forced me to re-examine my coaching and playing philosophy. I would definitely encourage other coaches to try and do the same – the game is evolving quickly and the best coaches will be those who can think ahead of the game – and the other coaches.
Arnar: Yes I can imagine that background would give you a very different perspective then you would have had otherwise. The FA Elite Coaches Award is something I find fascinating after I heard a bit about it. And I think it’s something that should get more publicity. Can you share your experience of it and what it consisted of?
Michael Jolley: The course was devised by Dick Bate at the FA who is a world class coach educator. Previously, the only option for A-Licence coaches to further develop was the UEFA Pro Licence, which is an excellent course but is mainly geared towards preparing people to be Managers or Head Coaches. The Pro Licence covers areas such as dealing with the media, managing upwards, and financial management, all of which are critical for managers but that leaves less time for focusing on the intricate detail of coaching at the very highest level. Dick’s concept was to create a Pro Licence equivalent for coaches – ideally younger coaches – which would be all about the game, and coaching the game at an elite level.
The FA selected 16 coaches to undertake the pilot course, which we did over 18 months, graduating in July 2013. The course was very intense and required us to complete tasks in our own time or in small groups, and then report back to the whole group at the regular get togethers. One example of the type of project we had to deliver – a group of four of us were the coaches of Manchester United, preparing to play Barcelona in the Champions League Final. We had to prepare every aspect of the game including a detailed tactical analysis, logistical preparations, physical loading and various scenario analyses. We presented our work to the group and then were fortunate that Rene Meulensteen shared with us how the real United staff had gone about the same task, sharing his work in preparing for the 2009 Champions League Final.
The strength of the course came from two main factors: the quality of the delivery from Dick Bate and Alistair Smith was excellent. Second – the openness of the other 15 candidates was fantastic, meaning that we shared some very frank and honest discussions. We all supported one another through the learning process and it was certainly a special group of people.
Arnar: This seems to me to be groundbreaking. I was blown away by a video of a lecture that Smith held for example. I can’t even a imagine how much a person can learn over a 18 month period in a course designed by Dick Bate and Alistair Smith, that has so much interaction with the people you are working with as well. Is there anything in the world at this stage that you think would compare to it?
Michael Jolley: I’m not aware of anything that is similar at the moment. I know that the FA have been pleased and impressed with the success of the pilot course and are planning to roll out the course as a permanent offering. They’re also trying to get the course recognised by UEFA as a Level 5 equivalent to the Pro Licence, so I guess if that happens it will be picked up by other countries and delivered there too. I feel really lucky to have been one of the first coaches to go through the experience.
Arnar: What are your thoughts on youth development in England and what do you think is the biggest challenge to overcome in order for it to improve?
Michael Jolley: That’s a tough question to answer all in one go Arnar. I believe there are two big issues which are preventing us from progressing currently.
First, the pathway for our best young players is being curtailed at the highest levels of competition. Very few clubs – particularly at Premier League level – have a clear pathway running from the academy through to the First Team. Premier League clubs need to remain in that league because of the financial implications of relegation. So most clubs will recruit ‘finished product’ players from the global market place instead of taking a risk with one of their own academy players, who may or may not be ready. That’s logical and it is difficult to blame them for that because they are under pressure from their fans and their owners to succeed as quickly as possible.
The challenge is that young players need that opportunity to play in the first team to get the experience they need to develop and improve. Development/Academy football is an excellent learning curve, but players need to experience the essence of competition at the highest levels against the best players to become the best themselves. So there is a dichotomy between the needs of the top clubs and the needs of the development players. I have heard a few possible solutions to this, but none which have no drawbacks. One idea may be quotas for the number of English players who must be in the squad or team, but I would need to know more about the legality of that given potential restriction of labour and so on.
The second big issue is that we – as a football nation – do not yet have a clear blueprint for how to play the game. I know that Dan Ashworth and the FA are trying to address this by creating and rolling out a ‘DNA’ – but I still think that compared to a country like Holland, we’re behind in this area. In my opinion, I see too many development coaches who are encouraging football that is a poor imitation of the Spanish/Barcelona model. We see their excellent football and try to match it – by playing out from the back, for example. However, I see many academy games where the players are great at passing square and backwards when under no pressure, but as soon as they come under pressure, they don’t have the technical skills to cope. We do not create sufficient numbers of players who can take the ball under pressure, perform turns to play forward passes or make forward runs with the ball. I’m not necessarily talking about lots of tricks and skills on the ball – which are great of course is used in the right way. I’m talking about the ability to play in 360 degrees by receiving from one direction and playing in the opposite direction, under pressure. In my opinion we need to encourage more practices which test and develop this kind of skill, and build that into a larger model of how we wish to see the game played. As I mentioned, I know the FA is making some headway with this but we still have a long way to go.
Arnar: It’s good that you mentioned that players have problems playing under pressure, it’s something that I witness on a regular basis. Some players cope a bit better than others but I find it rare and sometimes even they get into trouble because a teammate is not offering himself as a passing outlet in the correct body shape to receive the ball. Which methods can be applied to improve players’ ability to play under pressure in your opinion?
Michael Jolley: I think that watching the game – especially at the highest level such as the Champions League – gives the answers to your question Arnar. There are a many situations in which players must collect the ball, retain it under pressure, sometimes turn with it, and find a solution to keep the ball for the team or keep the attack flowing forwards. Creating practices which closely match these situations is the job of the coach. Football coaches are not very good at making their training/practice look like the game. This is where we must improve as a profession.
The next thing to say is that reducing the space/area size can create these conditions for playing under pressure. Many coaches might feel uncomfortable with this because it can look messy and does not flow perfectly. But I often try to work the players in small spaces because it creates the pressure that the players experience in the game.
Repeated good practice in these scenarios will enable the players to improve playing under pressure.
Arnar: Thank you Michael. I really like the method of using small sided games which are adapted to scenarios that players will encounter in matches in order to develop specific skills and understanding, which would be hard to develop otherwise . I would like to ask you what your coaching and playing philosophy is and how it has changed after those 18 months on the FA Elite Coaching Award?
Michael Jolley: I believe that it is important for a coach to constantly review and evolve his coaching and playing philosophy. This may sound contradictory, but the game is always changing, but it is also always staying the same. By that I mean that certain attacking and defending principles of play remain intact as long as the laws of football do not change, but coaches and players are continually creating slight shifts in the way the game is played. In an environment like this, a coach cannot afford to keep the same philosophy he/she had from five years ago, but things move on.
I have created a blueprint for my own purposes which details my playing and coaching philosophy. That document represents the best work of my career so far so I do not wish to reveal everything inside it! However, the summary is this: I believe in adopting a variety of coaching styles, contingent on the context in which I am coaching. Players always come first, then decide how I will ‘be’ to give the players the most relevant version of me on that day.
My playing philosophy is based on the following:
•controlling the game with the efficient use of possession when attacking
•creating overloads and 1v1s in certain areas of the pitch
•managing the game by the efficient use of spaces when defending
•playing through the units of the team, using some players who can cope under pressure (1v1, 1v2, 1v3 sometimes)
•a plan for fast transitions (both winning and losing the ball)
•a plan for all set plays.
This is a current snap shot of my playing and coaching philosophy. Ask me again in 12 months and it will be the same but different!
Arnar: Thanks for sharing that Michael and I completely agree that there are always shifts which evolve the game. Now I have to ask you about Dario Gradi. It would be criminal not to do so. What do you think of the man and what can you tell us about him?
Michael Jolley: I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Dario. He is a very special man and his achievements in the game are remarkable. I have only worked with Dario for around a year so there are many better qualified people than me to comment on him. I find him to be someone of the highest integrity who is very honest and is totally committed to the players and coaches he works with. He has incredible insight into the game, and sees the game quite differently to the vast majority of coaches. Dario is a wonderful teacher of the game and it is a privilege to watch him working with the young players every day. It is certainly a fantastic learning experience for any young coach.
Arnar: Thank you Michael for your time and for sharing your insight and experiences from the game. And would like to wish you all the best in your future.
This interview is reproduced with the kind permission of The Tomkins Times, where it appeared for the first time. The introduction to the interview was written by Paul Grech.