Google+ Blueprint for Football: Working on Aberdeen's Future

Monday, February 9, 2015

Working on Aberdeen's Future

For fans of a certain vintage, Aberdeen will forever be the club that in the early eighties broke the Old Firm dominance in Scottish football as well as beating Real Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup final.  It was a team led by a manager who would go on to achieve legendary status elsewhere – Alex Ferguson – and made up of players who had been developed within the club.

Indeed, of the sixteen players that played in that glorious European final, twelve had come through the ranks:  Jim Leighton, Doug Rougvie, Alex McLeish, Willie Miller, John McMaster, Neale Cooper, Neil Simpson, Eric Black, Bryan Gunn, Andy Watson, Ian Angus and John Hewitt.

Following Ferguson’s departure, the club slowly went into decline but it never lost its tradition for producing good players.

This season Aberdeen are once again challenging for honours but, regardless of what happens in the next few months, the club looks to have a bright future ahead of it. Having looked at what European’s top clubs are doing to develop talent, they have re-engineered their youth set-up to ensure that the flow of talent is even more consistent in the future.

Gavin Levey is the man charged with the club’s younger age groups and he is typical of a new breed of forward looking coaches that are starting to make their mark on the Scottish game.  It will take some years for the value of his work to really start to show (although some players that he’s coached in the past are starting to make their mark on the first team) but given the plan that he has put into place – and which is detailed in this interview – it is inevitable that he will make a mark.

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?
Gavin Levey: From a very early age, growing up on the outskirts of Manchester, I had a real passion for football and other sports as well.  At the end of my Under 16s season, the coach asked me if I would help coach the same age group the following year.  It was strange as I was about to turn 17 years old, but helping coach players a year younger than me.  I was put through a couple of coaching courses, whilst volunteering, and really enjoyed the experience of gaining coaching knowledge from other coaches. 

I’d recognised and accepted that I wasn’t going to make a career out of playing the game so I explored opportunities to help progress with a career in coaching.  I always try to make the best of every opportunity and after obtaining my coaching license and a Sports Coaching Degree, I got offered my first full time coaching role at a Scottish Premier League club when I was 21.

BfF: Have you had any mentors in your career?
GL: There have been so many influential people who have really helped me over the years and I’ve been very fortunate to have been surrounded by some excellent coaches and other staff.  However, Neil Mackintosh, who is now the Performance Development Manager at the Scottish FA really helped mentor me in the early stages of my career and has continued to be there for support whenever required.  

Mentoring can be so effective and it’s something that we should value highly to get the best out of coaches at all levels.

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy?
GL: My personal philosophy is centred round creating what I believe is best learning environment possible to help young players fulfil their potential, regardless of what level they go on to play at.  Elite football at a young age needs to be fun, but at the same time it needs to be Serious Fun! 

I want to help develop good technical players who can handle the ball under pressure and make effective decisions both when on and off the ball.  I am a firm believer in trying to replicate the game in training activities, which are high tempo so players can deal with the demands of the game at the weekend.  Players should be given the freedom to express themselves and have the ability to be unpredictable in game situations.  

I am a firm believer in a playing style of being patient in possession, to move the opposition to create opportunities to penetrate.  Although there may be times when you need to adapt, I feel teams should have a high work ethic off the ball and look to recover possession quickly, whilst denying the opposition space, time and options.  Players spend nearly all their time off the ball in matches, so as a coach it’s so important I help youngsters develop a passion for pressing, marking, recovering, whilst also creating space or angles to provide options when in possession.

It’s essential that elite players are challenged and if they need pushed on at an older age group then this needs to happen to maximise the development of the individual.  It’s vital that I help shape positive attitudes in young players, so they have the desire to practice away from training, which involves setting players individual challenges and targets.

BfF: How important - and why - is it for a coach to be at a club whose philosophy matches his own?
GL: It’s essential!  Coaches who work for a club need to share the same philosophy if we
are to maximise the player’s potential within the system.  It makes no sense what so ever to have a coach with completely different beliefs that contradict what all others are working towards.    Of course coaches will all have their own knowledge, experience and personality, but applying this to a shared vision is what’s important to achieve the goals together as one club.  

This can be one of the hardest parts of implementing a club philosophy, but it’s important to take time to listen and work with each coach involved and call upon their knowledge and experience for input where necessary.  However, you have to accept that a club’s vision may not suit every coach, but you can’t let this hold you back and risk it stifling and having a negative impact on players and other coaches.  It all comes back to creating a positive learning environment, not just for the players but also for the coaches.

BfF: Is winning important for you?
GL: Of course winning is important, but it’s certainly not the most important goal for me right now.  My role involves developing young elite players, so the individual long term development and their performance must be prioritised.  

However, it also depends on how you view winning.  We might play a game at Under 12s, where we have succeeded in achieving our learning objective for that week, but end up losing out on the score board.  This could still be viewed as a winning performance.  The opposite also happens to us, when our teams don’t play to their potential but win the game by a large score line.  It’s then important to reflect on the performance and help the players recognise what is a winning performance at a young age.  

It is however vital that as coaches we help develop a winning mentality with individuals from an early age and this comes from the training ground and preparing sessions which are competitive.

BfF: What are the most important attributes of players in your teams?
GL: This varies depending on the age and stage of a player’s development, but at Aberdeen FC we have criteria that we work towards and refer to with players and parents.  It can be described using the acronym AFCA – Aberdeen Football Club Academy and a brief version is highlighted below.  

A - Awareness – Makes good decisions when in possession and anticipates situations.
F – Football Mastery – The ability to be unpredictable and can master the ball in a variety of situations
C – Character – A strong mentality and positive attitude, whilst having desire to achieve their football potential.
A – Athleticism – The ability to move rapidly in different directions, has pace, endurance and quick reactions.

BfF: Is the physique (their strength) of players something you look at?
GL: It’s not a priority, especially at the young age groups.  Our priority is to develop the players regardless of size in the early years.  We have a number of small players who have a very quick speed of thought and can handle the demands of training and games, even a year above themselves. 

We need to be patient and allow players to mature both physically and mentally.  There are of course instances when you need to consider size, for example goalkeepers and centre backs at the highest level need to be of a certain physique so at the later stages of the Academy, we need to consider this and maybe become more position specific.

BfF: How do you identify talent?
GL: We made a really big move in terms of restructuring our scouting system at Aberdeen FC 18 months ago.  It was clear that we needed better coverage and build stronger relationships with the local clubs.  From 3 scouts in the North East of Scotland, we now
have a Scouting Coordinator along with a further 10 employed area lead scouts who have their own region to cover.  

Each area lead scout has a minimum of 5 voluntary network scouts who cover the different football activity in their area and feed in information.  This has made a real difference so far and has helped us identify some of the best potential in the area at an earlier age.  The boys’ clubs in the North East also do a great job and there are a large number of really good people coaching and running these clubs, who we are now able to work closely with.

BfF: You are the head of junior academy at Aberdeen.  What exactly does that role involve?
GL: My job primarily involves managing the 9-12 year old age groups at Aberdeen FC.  This is often referred to as the ‘speed window’ where the players will form their habits, so I gain a lot of satisfaction seeing the vast improvement and enjoyment that the youngsters gain in our environment.  

Coach Development is also a key part of my role at the club and we have a fantastic group of coaches who contribute and emerge themselves into the club’s philosophy. The environment for the coaches is also essential to get the best out of them as well.  

I have been responsible for helping design the Academy’s philosophy and coaching curriculum, which now focuses on the ages and stages of a player’s learning.  Having visited a number of the top European clubs over the years, the very best have a philosophy where everyone is working towards the same goal with a real feeling of togetherness.  

This takes time and a lot of hard work to implement monitor and evolve and it is something that I am really passionate about to help enhance what we already do. We introduced the philosophy at the Junior Academy 2 years ago and are now working upwards.  

In December 2014, Aberdeen FC were delighted to announce a major partnership with Statoil to become the exclusive Talent Partner of the Youth Academy over the next seven years.  This was a huge boost for all of us involved as Statoil clearly shared our vision in developing players through our philosophy.

I also still take an Academy team myself on a Saturday and train 3-4 times a week, which I’ve always felt is important.   I also get opportunities to work with the older squads at times
as well, which I really enjoy too.  I have been at Aberdeen for 8 years now so it’s great seeing the player’s progress through the academy.  

When away with the Under 20s in Portugal pre-season, it was brilliant to be working with the majority of players who have come right through from the Junior Academy. 

Essentially, it is my job to ensure that the players with the best potential move up to the senior age groups at the Academy but our overall aim as a club is to develop players that play in the first team.  This is of course why we have Youth Development programmes, but personally, I think we need to develop players who we can’t afford to keep in the first team and eventually go on to play in the English Premier League or in Europe.

BfF: What are the most important characteristics for a coach working with young children?
GL: Having a good understanding of children is just as important as having a good understanding of the game.  I have witnessed many coaches who have a great understanding of how to play the game really struggle breaking down a skill and trying to correct performance of youngsters.  This is why at the young age groups, we need to have the best ‘teachers’ working with the squads.  

I’ve already mentioned that it’s about shaping habits at the 9-12 age bracket, so we need coaches who have a great personality and enthusiasm to achieve this.  All our coaches at the young squads have all had some experience working with Aberdeen FC’s Community Trust, where they are challenged to work with youngsters of all ages and ability levels. This provides them with a great platform to build on. 

BfF: Similarly, what are the biggest challenges?
GL: I would say there are two main challenges, neither of which are the youngsters themselves.  Parents can be a real challenge at every Academy or recreation club.  However, let’s not forget that parents are often the biggest influence on the individuals we work with.  Therefore, we need to work with parents and by communicating effectively often takes away any potential issues.  

You need to remember that we are working with around 110 players in our academy, whereas a parent has all their focus on one (or two) individuals only.  I ensure that we have welcome meetings at the start of the year at each age group, which provide parents with information on our procedures and it gives them a chance for any questions.  

Having a further two progress meetings with them during the season and with each player having access to Sports Office also helps strengthen our relationships.

The second challenge is recruiting the right coaches with the appropriate qualifications and experience.  It’s often thought of in the UK that the best coaches work at the oldest age groups, but again it’s crucial that we recruit the best coaches who can teach and have a real passion for developing the young players both on and off the pitch.  

BfF: You mentioned that most coaches have experience in the community programmes.  How important is it for Aberdeen to have that link with the local community?
GL: We are fortunate at Aberdeen as we are a ‘one club city’, but that takes nothing away from the massive support that the community has for the club.  We’ve a proud history here and a bright future and you only have to look at last season’s success to realise what this club actually means to the people of Aberdeen.  To have over 40,000 Aberdeen fans at the
League Cup final and then the following weekend saw 80,000 people come out to see the Cup Winners parade through the city centre was unreal.  

Aberdeen FC’s Community Trust is expanding rapidly and not only looking at football and coaching initiatives.  The club does a wonderful job at reaching out to all sections of the public, from pre-school to the elderly and people who are from all walks of life.  They have a highly energised team of staff who are developing the fan base and the club’s reputation day by day.  This has a positive impact on the Youth Academy as well.  There are a number of full time community staff who are coaches of our young teams, but all their staff can take on a scouting role as well when they are out working in schools, youth groups or with the local clubs.  

BfF: Is mental strength, or strength of character, something that you look out for?  And how do you build it up?
GL: Yes would be the simple answer, but it depends how you identify this.  I’ve heard coaches say ‘He’s got a great winning mentality’ when a youngster reacts very negatively to a decision or the outcome of a game.  However, this could also be that the player is actually a bad loser or has a poor attitude.  

As coaches we need to create a training environment, where players have to compete in different situations, whilst still having fun and being determined to be the best they can be. If all you do in training is technical exercises under no pressure, it’s very difficult to expect the youngsters to be prepared to deal with the game on a Saturday.  

We also have to put incentives in place to continuously challenge the elite players.  As a club, players know they can move up age groups, but we now also have Advanced Academy sessions every 6 weeks for the top performers to be coached by a first team player or coach.  These are only for 3-5 players so that it is seen as a real achievement to be invited along.  

We have an Academy skills challenge in place for the season too, along with further awards at the end of the season.  

By using Self Evaluation diaries, this also helps us understand how the players rate themselves, which is a really useful tool to help our coaches find out about each players character. 

We also work very hard on character off pitch as well and all players arrive and leave by shaking the coach’s hand as a mark of respect for one another.  It’s the simple things like leaving dressing rooms tidy, picking up all the bottles after training and being well presented that help people remember us for being good people representing a great club.  

BfF: What kind of targets do you set yourself year-on-year?
GL: Personally, I want to achieve my UEFA Pro License within the next 5 years.  This will come through a lot of hard work and time shadowing top coaches within the game who I can
learn from.  Coaching in the senior game is so much more in depth now, with the like of the analysis, agents, sports science, strength and conditioning, and these will be things that are important to have some knowledge of in the meantime.

At this moment in time, I can’t afford to take my eye of my current role and ambition to help develop the best academy in the country, but gaining more experience in the senior professional game is something that I need to make time for.  

I wouldn’t specifically admit to having a year-on-year target, but I do ensure that I have one study visit to a European Academy each year, along with attending a number of CPD events.  It’s more a case of constantly challenging myself to learn.  

I attended and completed a Spanish introductory language course last year at college in the evenings and this is something that I’ll continue to progress with.  Having been in an audience of International and Premiership managers, so many of them have advised young coaches to go out and get a second language.  I only know the very basics just now, but it helped a bit when on my last study visit.

At Aberdeen FC, our academy targets are to have 50% of the first team squad to have come through the youth development programme, whilst also having a minimum of one player making their first team league debut each season.  Thankfully we meet these targets at present and are collectively proud of these achievements.

BfF: Finally, what do you want to achieve in the future to feel that you've fulfilled your ambitions as a coach?
GL: I’m now at a stage in my career where I’m seeing youngsters that I have worked with playing first team football.  When you work at the younger age groups, you have to wait a long time for this to happen and it’s certainly very rewarding when it comes around.  I always say to the coaches that you can’t be in this job for the credit, as you’ll never hear about the contribution from an Under 10s or Under 11s coach, but when a young footballer makes his debut, the player and the parents will know and appreciate your input and that’s what’s important. 

It’s a great feeling when it happens and it’ll hopefully continue for years to come.

I’ve always wanted to be the best I can be and appreciate the fact that for the last 12 years I have worked full time in football coaching, doing a job that I love.  

At Aberdeen FC I believe we are at the start of something very exciting for the future and it would be great to see this through.  However, time goes by so fast and it’s important to keep learning and challenging myself, whilst stepping out my comfort zone. I’ve now set myself the goal of working towards gaining more experience with full time players and I’ve just started the next phase of my personal development plan to further my coach education in the adult game.  

I feel that I’m still young enough, with time on my side to keep learning and make use of the opportunities around me to help realise my ambition of maybe one day work as a coach in the professional senior game.

If you enjoyed reading this interview then you'll probably like Blueprint According To...Volume 2, a collection of seven interviews with football coaches from all over the world.

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