In truth, it also takes a special kind of coach in order to know how to put the message across to children from such backgrounds. Tony McCool is one such coach. He is a strong advocate of the need for clubs to truly look everywhere for talent and has the experience needed in dealing with those that others would term as problematic.
Indeed, his experience is such that his views are bound to help any coach looking for new ideas and opinions on the art of coaching.
Blueprint for Football: How did you end up in coaching?
Tony McCool: As an adult I’ve never really been out of it. I started community coaching when I was 18 when first injured. Then I later had confirmation that my knee was completely unrepairable so when I was asked to coach at senior level I jumped at it.
I ended up coaching at a very good level in my early twenties and quickly became manager. I instantly decided that I wanted to remain in football and started learning. I knew I would need to start with youth in order to gain formal recognition. I volunteered and soon coaching became my life.
BfF: What, do you feel, is the most important skill for a coach to have?
TMcC: Enthusiasm. I’ve seen very knowledgeable coaches that don’t get the desired tempo or just coach with shouting. Enthusiasm breeds around the group and it starts with you. All the other outcomes like technical aspects and enjoyment can only be achieved if the coach is smiling and enthusiastic.
Over a decade ago the FA courses promoted KISS methodology. Trouble is now it doesn’t always look and feel ‘simple’. The game has become complex and I’m not sure who benefits from that with the advent of so many courses covering the game. I always say to players that the game is a lot more simple than us coaches would have you believe.
That said, while you asked for the most important skill, I have a coaching ethos which coaches that work with me also have. It’s (“4 x E’s”)
Enthusiasm: No matter what your day, smile and lead by example.
Energy: Create that in the session so that the tempo is realistic.
Empathy: Understand backgrounds, limitations, emotions, expectations. Also, understand better the parents and what they commit to.
Enjoyment: The most important result. Leave them buzzing from every session and desperate to come back. Remove pressure. Majority will not make it, but I want them to look back and say, ok, but I enjoyed every minute and learned a lot.
BfF: Have you had any mentors who have helped develop your way of thinking and of coaching?
TMcC: 100%. I always have and still have them now. Of course I’ve been fortunate to have seen some top coaches put on in-service days or been lucky to meet coaches who have worked with the best. You take little pearls of information that stay with you.
I’ve also been prepared to change or re-direct my thinking. The game is always evolving and as I coach I know I’ve changed along the way based on the people I’ve learned from. I’ve been fortunate to see some great coaches working like Chris Cummins who was at Luton Town for a short while before going onto Toronto FC. I remember him saying, “If it’s not working, don’t force it, just change it”. Add players, remove them. Make the pitch bigger or smaller. That stuck with me ever since and I’ve shared it with everyone that has worked with me.
But out-front of the many great people I’ve seen working which includes household names, is Steve Gallen at Queens Park Rangers. Steve had a personality that you can’t help warm to yet still had great leadership. As well as being a great person he has such depth of tangible knowledge and ability to recognise talent as well as find the method to maximise the potential. As well as that he has helped many people on their coaching journeys.
One last thing that always got me though was how lots of people look upwards to the people in higher roles with more experience for inspiration. I learned a lot from people around me. Coaches I worked with. Like Jay Marshall at Luton Town. So detailed! Detail became my favourite word in coaching when I learned from him. Then Stephen McCarthy at Queens Park Rangers. A very humble man that would keep saying he wanted to learn from me. But I was learning things from him. He was innovative.
Just when you might think you need no new thinking I got talking to my new colleague Roy Massey who was at Arsenal. I had a twenty minute discussion with him at training only a couple of weeks ago and he completely re-ignited my coaching ambitions and purpose.
BfF: Talking about thinking, what is your philosophy?
TMcC: The thing with a football philosophy is whilst a youth system should in principle lead a player to the first team, the chances of a player going through the phases and into the first team that he started is pretty slim. So I would go more towards creating a ‘footballer’ that is fully equipped for his trade.
Part of that for me is age appropriate training that is not just holistic in FA development terms. But holistic in footballer terms. By that I mean, the FA’s four corner model which we all know and I don’t disagree with. But, in footballer terms, they need to learn all aspects of the game.
One example is that I know of too many players that got released later because they were technically brilliant but were deemed to lack work rate off the ball, couldn’t defend and didn’t understand movement off the ball. Or did they just not learn it? Was it drummed into them that it wasn’t important?
The main thing is that a player of any age should want to play and train desperately. If training is too complex or pressured and players don’t enjoy it then they are not developing. The heavy focus in foundation phase is technical ability in tight scenarios. Or ball manipulation as some call it. However, I know players that reach mid-teens that cannot pass and receive the ball properly and don’t understand movement, then they knock on the door of the first team for a pro contract and get turned away.
I want to create programs that create fully capable players that are also mentally strong. When scholars are in the youth team and in development squads as early professionals they will then start to play the way the first team want and rightly so. But, what if the first team manager changes and along with it the clubs playing philosophy? That’s why players should learn different roles, different responsibilities, different styles of play. Along with being ‘technically appropriate’ for the role he eventually fulfils. That’s a trade professional graduated from football university.
BfF: How did you develop it?
TMcC: Working in an academy means you work a syllabus devised by the clubs management based on their philosophy and rightly so, you cannot have coaches all running off in their own direction. Of course you can still add your own twists to themes and your personality and enthusiasm. For me having worked most recently in development phase upwards I like to add competition and goals to as many sessions as possible. I like practice with a purpose. It creates the tempo and realism I need to achieve my objectives. Plus, players love that environment. Why not embrace it?
In training and games I like to create scenarios and some would argue it’s better to be consistent. But reality is when you knock on the door of the real world, games change, situation change, opposition change. I don’t mean setting up with 4 formations a game and practising pumping the ball up the pitch. But if you’re a team that’s philosophy is to play out from the back and through the thirds, what do you do when you get high pressed in
numbers forcing you in certain directions? Have you got the movement and passing range to achieve possession higher?
Overall I look at ‘real’ games. I list what things players do on the pitch in different scenarios. It’s also worth remembering that there is still no proven path. Some players still come back into the game via non-league which is why I maintain that players staying in love with the game is still the most important thing to remember.
BfF: Do you find yourself adding to it along the way? And if so, how does that process typically occur?
TMcC: I consider things all the time. Based on who I talk to and the result of what I deliver. I don’t think there is room for stubbornness. The thing with football is no one is ‘I’m right and your wrong’. But I could be that I’m wrong and you’re right. So, you have a view and if you’re able you use your qualifications, learning and most of all personal experience to, like the players, make mistakes, then learn from them.
Every day there are car crashes on the road and the majority of them are caused by licenced drivers. You make mistakes, you see things happen and you change along the way as a result. What that experience can do in football though, is cause you to see things going wrong that you already experienced. Or moral dilemmas that perhaps don’t sit right with you.
In some clubs airing that view can be seen as threatening and I would change that. I would put in a clear process for feedback and be prepared to change. Sometimes you are surrounded by the most amazing knowledge and listening could really do something amazing to football and our players.
BfF: How do you communicate? Both your thoughts for a particular session and, in general, for getting across your philosophy which typically takes longer to put across.
TMcC: I have been part of a club now that the head of coaching put in place minimum ball rolling targets. I love that. Players want to play not listen to you talking. For me I also really consider the timing of stopping a whole session. If a point is relevant to one person, then only speak to that person and let the session roll.
When you do speak to players and a group try to remind them what they did well. Especially with young players, they are desperate to please you and if you constantly tell them what they did wrong it damages there confidence. Some might say that you do however need let them know. I am guilty of that occasionally, but I think in coaching terms it’s a short term cheap solution. Could you recognise the issue, make a plan and fix that problem without the player ever been told the problem? That’s a challenge I set myself. Some coaches think good coaching is spotting all the things a player does wrong.
One thing I guess that tickles me, is seeing the scenario where a senior coach arrives in the vision of the coach. He or she springs to life and starts ‘coaching’. Stepping in, commentating. I tell myself to just focus on the pitch and not what’s around it. That means, I’m stepping in when it’s appropriate, not because I feel I’ve got to jump on the stage. Sometimes just watching is brilliant, also seeing mistakes and seeing if they fix it without you.
Equally, if you’re ‘senior’ have the courtesy to ask the coach if you can jump in the session to make a point. It could be that the coach had indeed seen the point but had let it run for a purpose. Overall the philosophy is a much bigger picture planned and delivered as part of the agreed syllabus.
BfF: What do you feel are the essential elements for an academy - or even a youth football club - to succeed?
TMcC: In terms of an academy football structure I have set out the key elements for what would be my ideal academy. A youth football club of course has separate strategies and goals.
Recruitment: Define clearly what attributes we are looking for. Don’t let cost be a factor that prevents a player coming into your radar range. Players must tick boxes in all four areas of our holistic footballer requirements. Overall, players must have something. The starting point has to be real potential. But, look at all the players in all the positions that earn their trade now and use that as guidance. Players have careers with different strengths. Also recruit ‘footballers’ in a style like the program ‘The Voice’. If someone can play and has potential then we should give them a chance. Not based on what they look like.
External relationships: Too many football clubs alienate their local communities’ grass roots clubs and create a ‘them and us’ culture. Grass roots don’t have the same strategy and targets so of course the club is there for a purpose. But it would benefit all concerned if those barriers were broken down. I would like to see clubs work closer with their supporting grass roots clubs.
I’m not sure people realise how much impact these volunteers have on these young people where for example, picking up the pieces of the lad released who’s confidence is shattered and has fallen out of love with the game. I genuinely don’t think there are many grass roots coaches who would stand in the way of a player who had a genuine chance. I do however know that many feel that some club take players at the wrong time, treat them the wrong way and them dump them back on their doorstep destroyed. Improving this relationship and listening to the clubs would have a long term better effect on the standard of players signed.
The signing and release process: I believe it’s too easy for players to be signed. If I’m taking a player out of school I want to be 100% confident that I can look the parents in the eye and tell them that I believe there son has got a chance. Not because I’m meeting a quota. No one person would make the decision. I would have a ‘signing / release panel’.
As well as the moral responsibility of signing a player, equally the release is just as important and of course, has proven to in many cases to have been the wrong decision. So, releasing a player will have been a group panel decision with a majority vote. Part of that would be review of what we did as a released player should be seen as failure on our behalf as well as the players. Albeit an unavoidable part of football.
The syllabus and philosophy: I described before about my philosophy on football. We would put that in place in order to ensure we create mentally and physically strong footballers that are technically brilliant and appropriate for their roles as well as tactically knowledgeable to be able to play a variety of styles. Overall, if they get released at scholar years they just look back and say it was great. We only get one chance to create a child’s memories of football. Think about your own.
The people: Coaches and staff should always remember who are the most important people at the club: the players. Of course qualifications and experience is great but personalities and zero ego policy would create the atmosphere for a young person to feel less pressure and be able to smile and enjoy football. So should the staff. You can be professional hard working and happy you know? That’s a proven combination.
Competitive tournaments: Life and football is full of ups and downs and it’s about managing your emotions of both along with coping with pressure. The games program is used to apply our philosophy and in that process of course winning games might be sacrificed. But we should not set ourselves up for failure of course. But there is an instinctive winning mentality in young people that we shouldn’t try to stamp on. We should embrace it but teach them how to control it. Tournaments are great for this and I would want us to travel Europe to learn different styles, cultures and see if we can win games.
Transition to professional: I’m not a great believer in the elite development league or U21’s. I know attempts have been made to make it more competitive but the reality is, no-one really cares about those results. In preparation players must go out on loan. This will help them mature and challenge them mentally as well as help improve their game in real competitive games where the number one objective is three points. This will also help find out if the player has got what it takes to step up into our own first team. Perhaps players purchased from lower level academies should also be offered for 1st refusal to the original club that recruited them.
BfF: Similarly, what do you propose needs to be done to help the overall situation in England?
TMcC: Well I really don’t believe banning the competition in the premier league will make our players better. If I make a new mobile phone and got Apple, Nokia and Samsung banned in the UK I’m sure I would have a better chance of it doing well here. But would it be the world’s best? After all, that is what we want our players to be.
The Premier League has some of the world’s most fantastic players and now we want to ban them in order to free up space for English players? If a player was really good enough do you not think managers and owners would put them in now? If we want to really be a world’s best national team then our players should be getting in their clubs teams on merit.
To me it’s the FA seeing a massive tree as a problem and just cutting it at the top. We have a unique league system here. A great top league and arguable the second tier would still be better than most other countries top league. So, embrace what we have got. Let’s get better players and coach them better. I would propose:
Embrace the Premier League, don’t fight it. Learn from the players here. Speak to them. Ask them what they did and how they did it.
Evolve our game. Review EPPP fully and find out what’s working and what needs changing before it’s too late.
The FA to establish its own ‘Elite Development Centre’. Like a bridge between grass roots/schools and Professional clubs. This should be free and players recruited on merit. No other criteria. Too many clubs are using the dream to finance development centres. I have seen players in schools that have great potential but come from difficult backgrounds that can’t even afford to be part of grass roots football, let alone pay to go to a development centre.
Improve access to 3G facilities to increase participation from hard up communities.
If we have true equal opportunities that would increase participation. That would increase competition. Added to that improved coaching, facilities and science. That would create a better player that gets into Premier League teams on merit alone. Then and only then would our English players be capable of winning a World Cup.
BfF: To what extent should we look overseas to see what others are doing?
TMcC: Of course, part of evolution and learning is to check out the competition. That’s no different to any industry. But we always seem to be checking out the competition and never focus on our own attributes and identity. It was Brazilian ways, sole of the foot, samba football. Then its Spain and Tiki Taka and trying to manufacture Lionel Messi. Suddenly the Germans crop back up and were left scratching our heads again.
I’ve been to clubs academies in Europe like Dusseldorf and It led me to really admire what they did. The thing that struck me instantly was the lack of ego and what nice people they were. That was the same with the players as they jogged over to shake my hand and say hello as a guest. It was clear to me as I watched the sessions that the players looked physically strong and they had a very competitive structure with fans filling there equivalent reserve games.
I’ve also been in tournaments and seen the technical brilliance of Ajax but what people don’t really talk about, or are scared to mention here was the team ethic. The game understanding and roles of the boys in the youth team was breath-taking. So they were clearly learning roles and responsibilities off the ball as well as on it.
Passing and receiving was precise with immediate movement. It certainly wasn’t heavily focused on just 1v1 and ball manipulation as might think and I would suggest those players stand a better chance of playing in our Premier League than the majority of our own, purely because of the learning and understanding.
Then there was the mental strength of the Russians. With well over 1,000 fans in the stadium the youth 15 year old’s walked up to the penalty spot like they were in their own back garden whilst our lads wobbled to the spot like it was the World Cup final shoot-out.
So there our things to learn, yes. But still, we have great things here and its time we recognised and embraced it. I have a friend at SC Heerenveen. I took him to see a couple of academies here at different levels and he was gobsmacked. The scale of the clubs throughout the leagues, even including the conference amazed him. He was left rubbing his eyes at why we are not so much more successful as a nation.
BfF: I believe that you've done a lot of work with kids from difficult backgrounds and areas. First of all, do clubs look hard enough for talent in these areas? If not, why not?
TMcC: No, they don’t. Simple answer. Sporting talent can appear from any community or background. There is no rule. But history certainly tells us that many of the world’s best players have been found from situations of hardship. The trouble is now that the game really depends on financial support.
To even go to some development centres some parents are being asked to part with well over £400 and that puts that child on a path to the Academy. Then if you’re in an Academy some will be required to travel to the training ground four times a week and maybe huge miles for a game. For many those situations complete rule out many talented potential footballers.
We must find a way of identifying these players and managing circumstances to enable them to be supported to sustain their ability to attend training. Equally we shouldn’t disregard a player because he comes from a financially strong background but my point is that we must be limiting the pool of players we select from due to the financial demands.
Football here is becoming a pay to play game and more worrying a pay to be identified game. That can’t be good for England? So the answer is to build a 3G pitch on a council estate? That’s like cooking a barbeque next to a starving dog. The sausages look great but it’s not helping his hunger, its increasing it. With all the money The FA generates and the Premier League’s windfall income, surely they can support clubs or organisations to go and get these kids onto those new pitches and in the eyeline of recruitment staff?
BfF: Does football, given the influence that it has, not have an obligation to try and improve the future of these kids?
TMcC: Well other than perhaps the very top clubs who have worldwide fans, all other clubs are cornerstones of their communities. It has to be said that most of them already do great work in their communities with the support of the Football League Trust. But I’m talking about pure football player recruitment and development. Truth is I don’t actually think they are obliged as such because they are just tasked with finding players. I just think it’s tremendously naive to ignore and overlook this situation.
The obligations come in once the player is recruited and has had their life and education affected. Also the parents have committed so much in time and costs. Its then that I feel clubs should be obliged to have a better release procedure and support services.
BfF: In your experience, what is the best approach to handle such players? Is it truly as impossible a job as some seem to make it out to be?
TMcC: Comes back to my coaching ethos: empathy. Ultimately in the end you might not be able to change everyone. But it’s worth reminding yourself that some eccentric natures and behaviour types are actually signs of excellence and I try to understand how to manage that. Actually I don’t want to see marching robots round a training ground. Manners and respect yes, but different personalities are part of life.
It’s also worth reminding yourself that some of these children have really difficult backgrounds and you need to understand that. My approach is to treat the players as human beings. Show them respect and you will likely get some back. Of course there are times when you need to be firm. I don’t have a problem with that. I just look people in the eye and be honest and straight with them. Be consistent and always follow through what you say. But overall, in my view greatness comes from some of the most difficult people to manage. The ones that challenge you could well be the genius.
BfF: You've also built a football related business in 2Touch Football and Fiitball. Can you explain what brought them about and what they try to achieve?
TMcC: It’s nice to be able to coach the way you want and deliver your own ethos. 2Touch Football gives us that opportunity, although we do also try to stick to what we believe would be required in an academy. Over the years I had regular requests from people that wanted to receive private coaching so that’s how we started. Lots of people do football coaching but we are really keen for our coaches to stick to the coaching ethos and ensure a rewarding session for players. We also want them to learn something. We think that’s good value.
Now we also do other rewarding work that isn’t all about elite player development. As a coach I was fascinated by subject of movement and awareness. I had seen and took part in Netball as a child myself as my sister was an elite netballer. I loved to see double runs and third man runs. Angles and disguised movement. I thought this could be really useful for footballers and putting the ball in the hand for a short while really helped this development.
We looked at lots of different rules and ways to score and eventually we realised that we had created a game in its own right and called it Fiitball. What really made me go cold was taking it to schools and seeing boys and girls playing together with teachers saying that we had increased sport participation with this game.
BfF: How popular have they been?
TMcC: We are oversubscribed for schools and can only currently work locally. So we have a roll out plan to go further afield and overseas. We’ve also recently been awarded some innovation funding and a University has now been commissioned to carry out research and development to gauge acceptance and requirements to formalise the game and create its own governing body.
BfF: And, finally, what do you want to achieve to be satisfied with your career as a coach?
TMcC: I love football. I love working with young footballers and seeing them develop but I’ve been in the professional academy environment now for well over a decade. I would like
to be in a position where I can make a difference now in terms of professional youth development. I started out on my journey in senior football then jumped from there right down to the bottom rung to learn.
I believe I’ve done my apprenticeship now. I can plan football matches uniquely having worked across Europe with some of the biggest clubs first teams. I believe I’ve got great adult communication and leadership skills and have had that experience throughout my career. So, if a senior role came up now and the club has ambition, I would snap it up. But any first team role, manager or coach would only be useful for me if I had some influence over the youth structure. You need an Academy manager and (maybe) a head of coaching but it shouldn’t be a separate entity. If a club really has a player pathway then players need to see the path, not a brick wall.
Tony McCool is a coach at Norwich City having previously worked at QPR and Luton. He is also the owner of 2TouchFootball and Fiitball.
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