Google+ Blueprint for Football: May 2014

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.

If you enjoyed this article you'll probably also like our e-book Blueprint for Football Extra...Volume 1 available for Kindle from Amazon (UK version here).  Anyone who would like an e-Pub or PDF version can get in touch by e-mail on pawlu_grech[at] or on Twitter.

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.

For more on Blueprint for Football, connect to us on Facebook here and here, as well as on Twitter.