That might have once been the case, and it could very well still be the case at some clubs, yet there are many academies which are populated by coaches who are both extremely well educated (football wise) and also hungry to improve themselves.
For most of these coaches, football is a vocation that they feel compelled to follow. They have no desire to simply follow blindly what those who came before them did but instead they want to learn as much as possible from as many different sources as possible.
Such coaches aren't to be found exclusively at the top academies but are spread out all over the country. Indeed, the most forward looking of such clubs appreciate that, in lieu of the financial and facility riches of the big clubs, they need coaches with a clear vision and the ability to implement their ideas.
This is certainly something that those running Bristol Rovers have realised and worked on. Despite relegation from League Two last season, the club remains very much a forward looking one something that is typified by their desire to press forward with the building of a new stadium with a 21,700 capacity.
Their vision also includes investing in the development of their own players. Already they have had some success in that respect with a number of youth products boosting the first team squad.
Naturally this also includes supporting their academy to maintain its current status. “At present relegation has not had a huge impact. We have continued to run a full Category 3 program this season and both the club and football league continue to maintain full funding support for the program.”
“Should the club not be back in the Football League next season then we will receive less funding from the Football League but it is still our intention as a club to run as full a program as possible and to maintain Category 3 status.
Those are the words of Jonathan Henderson who recently took over as Head of Coaching at the academy. As is typical for many of today’s young coaches, Henderson’s route into football was a roundabout one and included a lot of education before venturing into the field.
“I completed my first coaching badges when I was 16. These were delivered through the SFA by Atholl Henderson who was the Football in the Community Officer at St. Johnstone FC. I loved it from the first day,” he recounts. “I was fortunate enough to then have the opportunity to do a placement at St. Johnstone delivering on their holiday camps for a short period whilst also doing some delivery at my school with the 1st year school team through the PE department.”
“At 18 I moved to Cardiff to go to university (UWIC) to study a degree in Sports Coaching, and through contacts I made there I ended up coaching at Merthyr Town (previously Merthyr Tydfil) FC within their Academy set-up and also doing some voluntary work with the Local Authority in the Sports Development Unit.”
“When I graduated I gained a full time role with the SDU which gave me a great opportunity to develop in terms of strategic planning, partnership working and developing projects.”
“I’d been working in the SDU for a few years but football was the main thing I wanted to do. I’d just finished my Masters’ degree and was at the stage of thinking that if I didn’t look to pursue football full time then it may not ever happen.”
“So I took a chance. I opted not to renew my contract with the SDU when it came to an end and went looking for an opportunity. Within a few weeks I had managed to get myself a part time role as Advanced Development Centre manager for one of the centres, and within a few months I was able to secure the position full time running the entire network of centres across the South West.”
“After about a year full time in the ADCs, there became a vacancy within the Bristol Rovers Academy as lead Foundation Phase Coach responsible for managing and developing the U7-12s section, a role I held for just over a year before becoming the lead Youth Development Phase Coach (u13-16s).”
His story, then, is the antithesis of the former pro getting a job because of his contacts and past, which used to happen so often in the past.
Indeed, Henderson has worked hard to earn his way to the current role of Head of Coaching, where he is “responsible for the development of the academy playing philosophy and coaching syllabus across all age groups as well as supporting the development of the coaches with their delivery.”
“I also currently hold the role of Academy Manager which also involves working directly with the club Board for the development of the whole program; liaising with the heads of department (coaching, recruitment, sport science, medical, education); liaising with the first team manager; and working with the Football League to meet Academy requirements in line with the EPPP.”
This last comment provides a good transition point to a discussion on EPPP that has been so criticised by smaller clubs. Yet Henderson is quite balanced in his analysis of EPPP.
“Ultimately the EPPP is there to help improve standards and from that respect it is a good thing,” he says. “Prior to our audit we sat down as a group of staff and came up with what was important to us. Our values, philosophy, vision. This formulated our Academy Performance Plan which now gives us a clear strategic understanding on where we wanted to be, how we wanted to operate, what our processes were and how to deliver what we wanted.”
“There are drawbacks of course. Large amounts of paperwork and reports to support and justify what we do means it is often difficult for staff and can sometimes detract from the actual practical role of trying to improve players in the real world and not just on paper.”
“In my opinion it is not always a best use of time and I’m always conscious of the demands we put on the part time staff so we try to make this process as easy and practical as possible but it can be a deterrent for some coaches.”
All of this does not make mention of one of the biggest criticisms of the EPPP which is that it affords Premier League clubs greater leeway to poach talent from the academies of smaller sides.
This, perhaps, is because Bristol Rovers had long been accustomed to dealing with other, bigger, sides vying for local talent.
“There is a lot of competition in the area. Ourselves, Bristol City, Southampton all have established programmes competing for players and more recently clubs such as Cardiff, Swansea and West Brom all running development/talent id programs in the area,” Henderson reveals.
“However we do not see this as a threat as we feel the quality of our program is strong enough to be able to attract players of the desired standard. Yes some players (and parents) will be attracted by the badge of a ‘bigger’ club but that does not ensure quality of the product they are providing.”
“I would back ourselves that players coming in on trial will enjoy what we do, find it productive and beneficial for their development and see the quality we can offer is of a high level to convince them to commit to us. If anything the competition drives us and ensures we maintain high standards because if we don’t, then we would suffer as a result.”
“We have a full time head of recruitment (Alex Hinder) within our Academy who has a vast network of contacts in the area,” Henderson says as talk switched to how Rovers identify players. “He will liaise with local clubs, schools, coaches and the Advanced Development Centres to identify potential players. We also have a small number of scouts and spotters in surrounding areas who recommend us players that they become aware of in their region.”
“Throughout the year we will also run open trial days where clubs can nominate players to attend to be seen by our scouts and coaches with view to then bringing in any players we would like to see further for a six week trial with the Academy squads.”
“On top of this, we also run pre-academy squads for Under 7s and Under 8s. Academy players cannot sign until U9s so this gives us an opportunity to work with some talented players prior to this time.”
“These players continue to train and play with their grassroots clubs and we simply provide an additional opportunity for them to work within our framework and with our coaches to support their development.”
What is it, however, that they look for in a player?
“The biggest thing is a positive attitude and work ethic. Willingness to learn.”
“We work in a development environment, a learning environment. So without the ability to learn and willingness to improve then the program won’t benefit the player. We also look for a player who is confident, brave to try new things and push themselves beyond being safe. Someone who will embrace challenge and not fear it as this will also ultimately foster a better level of development long term.”
“In terms of technical attributes, it would depend on the age and their stage of development but fundamentally players who are comfortable on the ball and relish the opportunity to try and play.”
“From a physical perspective we try to look at the mechanics and fundamental movements. Agility, balance, speed. Things like strength, power, body stature are irrelevant in the younger age groups as these will develop in time.”
Naturally, all of these attributes fit in well with the club’s philosophy.
“We aim to produce technically proficient players who are capable of making their own decisions in the game. We want the game to be played with a possession based approach where we can build up play from the back and through the thirds, but also to produce players who can recognise opportunities to create and exploit attacking opportunities, create overloads; score goals.”
“To do this we believe heavily in creating the right environment that supports this and ensures the right behaviours occur,” he continues. “Players must be able to express themselves without fear of failure. They must be exposed to an environment that encourages them to make decisions. Where they can try things and try to problem solve.”
“Players must be willing to challenge themselves and show commitment and effort to their development and learning and who are willing to express themselves. We try to foster an environment where the process and effort is celebrated more than simply the outcome (performance over result).”
“Players are also given responsibility and opportunity to reflect on their learning. Share ideas and feedback to each other or with the coaches as we believe this will generate a better understanding and buy-in than simply being told. The coaches work to develop this environment and provide support through feedback, question and answer, use of individual challenges that allow the players to develop.”
All this augurs well for the academy and, justifiably, Henderson has lofty goals.
“My ambition would be to continue to develop the Academy to a point where it would be regarded as one of the best category 3 academy not only in the region but nationally; to develop a program that people are inspired by and would like to emulate.”
“However, for me a successful academy is not simply developing players to play for the first team or for players moving to category 1 and 2 clubs or for players to achieve international recognition – for which we have a very good record of doing all of in recent years - but instead in terms of developing a system for players who when they leave the program at whatever stages of their career have found their time with us beneficial and supportive in becoming good people as well as good players.”
“Like every player in the game who aspires to play at the highest possible level, I see no harm in coaches also aspiring to work at the highest level they too can as this keeps your motivation to continuously strive to be the best you can be.”
“So I suppose on a personal level one day further down the line I would like to work within a category 1 club as Head of Coaching, assuming the environment and the vision of the club was a compatible with my own.”
Jonathan Henderson can (and should) be followed on Twitter. This is the second part in a series of articles looking at the different roles within the Bristol Rovers academy, the first part of which can be read here. Share any views you might have with me on Twitter.
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