Blueprint According To...Craig Easton
How do you judge a player's career? Do you look at initial expectations and see how he fared when compared to them? Or do you simply look at what he has managed to achieve?
Going by the first metric, then the verdict on Craig Easton wouldn't be too kind. A Scottish Under 21 international and an alum of Tommy McLean's Dundee United, he was expected to reach heights that ultimately he didn't. Then again, he enjoyed a good, long career as a professional playing over 500 games for 7 clubs in both Scotland and England.
Looking at those statistics then it would be harsh to see his career as anything other than a success.
That said, the man is quite harsh on himself, freely admitting that he didn't achieve all his ambitions as a player. Rectifying that is now his ambition as a coach. More than that, however, he is driven to improve the players in his care.
Blueprint for Football: When did you start thinking that you wanted to get into coaching?
Craig Easton: When I think about it, I’ve probably coached at every club I’ve played for. The youth team at Dundee United were made to go down and help with the Football In The Community sessions and I actually quite enjoyed it, so I suppose the seed was planted way back then.
During my playing career, I always helped out either with the FITC programmes or Academy kids and later on with the youth teams.
I recognised that the help I had from my coaches and senior pros as I was coming through was vital, so I’ve always felt a certain responsibility to pass on anything that may help those kids coming through.
I really became serious about coaching and management probably around 2009, the time when Guardiola had Barcelona playing football that seemed to be from another planet. But there were also other interesting things going on at the same time. Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund excited me with their energy and attacking play. Mourinho’s Inter Milan won the Champions League when on paper they certainly shouldn’t have. A couple of years later, Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Club Bilbao blew me away with their two performances against Manchester United in the Europa League and all the time Spain were re-writing football history at International level.
It got me thinking about how football had changed and the different tactics, formations and styles that managers used. It was a period that turned me on to football again and it all started with Barca.
BfF: Does being a former player help? Does it automatically get you that little bit more respect from players?
CE: I think being a former player certainly helps, more so because I’ve lived and breathed
the game from the perspective of the players I’m coaching. Not only can I really get into the fine detail on something from a technical or tactical perspective, but I can understand how players may be feeling from a psychological and social perspective. For example, understanding their reaction to them feeling like they’ve had a bad game or even just helping players adjust to life in digs.
I’m certainly not saying you have to have played the game to be a good coach, but I do think it gives me an advantage in certain areas.
As for automatically getting players’ respect, I think as a former pro, you do up to a point but it won’t last long if you’re not capable and you’ll be found out very quickly. It doesn’t matter who you’ve played for or at what level, players will rightly judge you on the quality of your sessions, man-management, and work ethic to improve them. You have to gain their respect as a coach.
BfF: Throughout your career you've played under a lot of managers. Have there been any that left a particular impression on you and what do you try to copy off them?
CE: I’ve played under many managers with different strengths and various styles. The two that stand out are Tommy McLean who gave me my break as a 17 year-old at Dundee United, and Martin Ling at Leyton Orient - the simple reason is that I felt they understood me both as a player and a person.
Tommy gave me my debut at a young age and trusted from very early on to play major roles in important games. He was always trying to improve me as a player and would take time to work on little aspects of my game on a one-to-one basis. Plus, he was honest with me and never held a grudge. Even if he had been in my face after a game, he would be the first one waiting to say hello and have a chat at training on the Monday. Everything would be forgotten, we’d have a laugh and we’d be ready to go again.
Martin was very similar in the way he made you feel. He gave me responsibility and I felt he had faith in me as a player and a leader in the team. Our Leyton Orient team won promotion from League Two with a midfield four of whom I was the tallest at 5’10. We played a passing game in a league where physicality was everything. We still could mix it, but the Gaffer’s bravery to stick by his philosophy impressed me.
Both these managers were excellent coaches on the training pitch with amazing attention to detail and their sessions were short, sharp and competitive, but their ability to man-manage is what I would like to take from their approach. They got the balance right of pushing me to be better, but at the same time giving me the confidence to understand I was a big part of the team.
From my time in youth football, there are many coaches that have made an impression. It seems mad now, but John McKenna, my first ever manager at North Airdrie under 10s used to have us playing in the old 3-2-5 formation and I played inside left even though I was right footed.
He didn’t overcomplicate it or focus on tactics or anything, just the basics of passing and moving, being creative and working hard as a team. Some of the football we used to play (mainly on red ash pitches) at that age was brilliant.
Graham Liveston at Dundee United was excellent at getting us to think about little details of our game and I was lucky to come through the club at a time when they were producing a lot of good young players, mainly because of him. Later on at Tannadice Paul Hegarty and Gordon Wallace along with Maurice Malpas were coaches that helped me progress to the first team at a young age.
BfF: Do you turn to former managers and colleagues for advice?
CE: Yes, I think you have to use whatever resources are at your disposal. At Torquay
United we had a great bunch of coaches and we would always be bouncing ideas off one another which I think is a good way to tap into different peoples’ knowledge and experience.
Ryan Maye was our FA coach educator for the south west region and he’s someone who I’ve been able to turn to for advice. Since I’ve been back in Scotland, I’ve caught up with a few managers, coaches and ex-teammates and there’s always something you can take away from a conversation. Exposing yourself to debates and different points of view is a great way to learn and that was one of the best things about doing the A licence.
There were coaches from different countries working at various levels and it was fascinating to experience so many different styles and points of view. I also regularly speak with Martin Ling who gave me guidance as a player and he’s been a great source of advice now I’m coaching.
My father and my wife are always on hand to give me advice. Not only did my dad help guide me throughout my career, but I believe he would’ve been an excellent manager. He used to coach and manage all the Boys Brigade teams and still does. My brother and I joke that he’s probably won more trophies than Sir Alex! From a young age, he instilled in us a fierce competitive attitude, but always wanted us to play with style and skill and got the mix just right. He might not have any coaching badges, but he knows as much about the game as anyone I’ve come across. And my wife certainly gets it too. She hardly missed a game in my career and often helps me see the bigger picture, especially when it comes to understanding how players react and deal with certain situations.
BfF: Similarly, have you ever had any mentors?
CE: I certainly consider Martin Ling a mentor. I just wish I could’ve worked with him longer at Torquay United when I was really starting to think about the game from a coaches perspective.
BfF: Does coaching ever replace the sensation of players?
CE: No. I agree that it’s the next best thing and I get an immense feeling of pride from seeing the team or one of my players doing well, but I can’t even explain the emotions of playing football professionally. The hairs on the back of my neck are standing up just thinking about it.
BfF: Given that you are now studying more about the game, do you look back at your career and think about what you could have done differently?
With hindsight, there’s always things you could have done differently, certain decisions and so on but I put everything into my career - every single day - and while I didn’t achieve the goals I set myself, I know I couldn’t have given any more. I was very singleminded and dedicated to improving, so personally, I’ve always been happy with how I approached my career and my own personal development.
However, I was a box-to-box midfielder, a bit of a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, and was utilised in many positions at an age when I was still developing as a player. If I’d been given a particular role at this time, I think that might have kicked me on a bit in terms of my development.
I studied the game more in depth later on in my career, mostly because I was undergoing my B licence and thinking seriously about the next step into coaching and management. I wish I’d started the process earlier as it certainly helped my own performance, and the way I was able to see certain aspects in a different more analytical light.
BfF: What has change most since your days as a young player: physical, tactical or emotional preparation? In what way?
CE: I cant’ give a single answer here. It’s all changed to an incredible degree in different ways. Firstly physical preparation. In the Youth Team at 16 or 17 you went to the gym on your own and did weights - which usually consisted of trying to out-bench everyone else - or the coach would take you the group for a circuit.
Nowadays there are fitness coaches, sports scientists and individual programmes. More focus on core strength, flexibility and functional movements. Tactically, there’s now more video analysis which helps to highlight things individually, in units and as a team. This was almost non-existent at first team level when I started out and now it’s almost normal for every team in an Academy to be able to access some sort of video analysis which is great. It certainly helped my game later on in my career, and the kids love seeing what they did well and what they can improve on.
Which brings me on to emotional preparation. I’m finding that a lot young players are very good at self assessing which in turn helps them think more about what and how they can improve. Many Academies have access to a sports psychology programme and this can also help how players deal with pressure, and not just in football related scenarios.
BfF: What do you do to keep on learning? Where do you look for inspiration and ideas?
CE: I learn in many different ways. At the start of the season I spent a week shadowing my ex-Dundee United colleagues Derek McInnes and Tony Docherty who are now manager and assistant respectively at Aberdeen FC. It was great to pick their brains and see first hand the way they work during a typical week and also how they use all the tools and staff at their disposal to prepare for a game on a Saturday.
CPD events are good for picking up new ideas. I was recently at one organised by the Scottish FA which featured Michael Beale from Liverpool under 21s and he shared a lot of the core values that they promote from the Academy through to the first team level. I also enjoy reading interviews from coaches and managers throughout the world on how they approach different aspects of the game.
Obviously Blueprint for Football is excellent for this! A lot of the time, just talking with other coaches and watching games probably inspires me most.
BfF: You've been through an experience at Torquay which wasn't very positive in the end. Have you taken any lesson of that experience?
CE: It’s massively disappointing how everything turned out at Torquay United. As is often
the case, money was the problem and ultimately the combination of new owners and finances put paid to a really promising Youth Academy that was not only producing players for our first team, but who we were selling to bigger clubs.
We worked really hard to attain EPPP Category 3 status. There’s no doubt there have been a lot of poor decisions made at the club over the last few seasons and relegation from League Two seriously affected the funding for Youth Development, but with the amount of money at the top end of the game, it’s about time some of it trickled down and was ring-fenced to help with nurturing talent in the Lower Leagues.
We had some really talented players in our system and it’s great to hear that most of those have found clubs. Two of our lads are scholars at Southampton and another has signed for their under 16s. Others have gone to Yeovil, Exeter and Plymouth, so I’ve no doubt that Torquay United’s loss is going to be their gain.
Personally, it was an interesting and fun first experience coaching and developing players in an Academy environment. I was fortunate to work with a dedicated group of coaches, players and parents and learned many things that I’ll take with me on my coaching journey. Probably the biggest one, is really know your players and then you can understand the best way you can motivate them and help them to learn.
BfF: Talking of learning a lot is said about players needing to be intelligent on the pitch. What are your views on this and is football intelligence something that can be built up or are players born with it?
CE: For me football intelligence is a lot more than just reading the game. It’s knowing how you fit into the part of the puzzle. How to react to different moments in a game. Decision making in and out of possession in relation to ball, space, opponents, teammates, so many things to consider as the picture continually changes. Game management. And no player gets it right all of the time, not even at Champions League level, so think how hard it is for 15 and 16 year old kids. However, the older they get, they need to be making more correct decisions as they are ultimately getting judged on whether they can progress to the next stage where the pace of the game increases.
For example, if you have a player with outstanding ability, but he really struggles with game intelligence, he’s not going to make it to the level he could potentially play at. It’s our job as coaches to guide them and challenge them to make good decisions more often by testing them regularly through small sided games and realistic game related scenarios. The more a player experiences these situations, then the easier it will be for them to make a good decision when they encounter it during a game. Some players certainly seem to have a greater understanding, but I believe you can help improve it.
You look at Xavi, Lahm, Pirlo or Mascherano and it looks so natural to them. Iniesta is a player who nine times out of ten will make the correct pass with the perfect weight and it’s these small details that are the difference between good players and the very best.
BfF: What do you feel is the most important thing a player needs? And what do you look for in a player?
CE: It’s important for players to be comfortable with the ball, regardless of position. I think that ball mastery allied with a competitive edge is a good starting point for any young player and then you can start looking at specific attributes. Players don’t necessarily need to be coached to have either of these. Individual practice and playing with their mates in the street or down the park can help to build this base.
Later on, awareness and decision making is key, but a constant throughout, is having the right attitude and a good work ethic. A player can be technically gifted, athletic and have all the attributes associated with being a top player, but if his attitude’s not right, there’s only so far he’ll go and only so many coaches and teammates that will put up with him.
BfF: Similarly, what is the most important attribute of a coach?
CE: Patience and dedication are two key things a coach must possess, however, I think the most important attribute a coach can have is positivity. At any level, the coach is who the players look to for inspiration and leadership, so the positive body language you portray and the enthusiasm you bring to the role needs to be there before you even set foot on the training ground.
BfF: Is there a book you feel every coach should read?
CE: There are two books that have inspired me over the last few years and I would highly recommend them to both players and coaches alike. Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World and Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja's Historic Treble both by Graham Hunter. Both teams played a part in re-igniting my passion for the game at a time when I was somewhat disillusioned by football.
Graham Hunter’s insight and detailed assessment of how and why these teams were so successful is fascinating and I keep dipping back into them all the time. I was lucky enough to interview him for an article I’m writing on Barcelona which will be included in the upcoming issue of Pickles Magazine. He knows his stuff and it was a pleasure talking to him about players and a club he knows intimately.
BfF: What do you want to achieve in your career to be satisfied?
CE: I wasn’t satisfied as a player. I wanted to play for Scotland and Liverpool and I didn’t do either. I would love to coach and manage at the highest level and that’s certainly an ambition. If I get there, no doubt I wouldn’t be satisfied unless I won the Champions League! At the moment, I get a lot of joy from seeing players progress. Not just from them playing in the first team or moving on to better things. That moment when they’ve been struggling with something and then you see it just click with them is massively rewarding.
I had a lad playing for my college team last season that on the first day was struggling with his balance, never mind controlling the ball, but his work ethic and attitude to improve was incredible. He ended up a regular starter and in the last game of the season he scored a great goal in a game against the Youth Team on the pitch at Torquay United. That’s what it’s all about.
Follow Craig Easton on Twitter.
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