Tony Mee is one such coach. Whilst he might be among the full-time staff at Scunthopre United’s academy, a lot of his interaction is with coaches who work on a part time basis. That, however increases his desire to excel which is also evidenced in his desire both to learn off others and also impart what he has learned over the years.
Blueprint for Football: What is your role precisely? What work do you do?
Tony Mee: My current role is Lead Youth Development Phase Coach (12-16) at Scunthorpe United where I oversee the coaching programme for those age groups. I'm also Lead Coach for the Under 16s. A lot of my daytime work is based around the PMA, designing sessions to fit our syllabus, helping to coordinate all aspects of running the Academy and the evenings and weekends are coaching and games.
BfF: What is your philosophy? In particular, how did you develop it?
TM: I want players to be technically excellent and tactically flexible. In terms of how I like my teams to play, I enjoy fast paced, attacking football, played by players who are prepared to try things in possession but know how to defend when they don't have the ball. I've always tried to get players to be comfortable in possession and have a strong work ethic.
I suppose I’ve developed it as a result of working with coaches who’s teams I’ve enjoyed watching or who’s teams I was fortunate enough to play in during my time in the Army, where we were given plenty of opportunity for sport. Whilst serving in Germany, I also played for Dutch and German coaches who exposed me to their ways of working, although there are probably less differences than you might think.
With the Academy boys that I work with, there is a greater need to be helped to develop the resiliency needed to cope with the increasing demands of the game and it can be a struggle to get enough work on the right hand side of the 4-Corner Model when you are at a Cat 3 Academy. However, you have to be honest with the players (& parents) at all stages of development.
BfF: How do you fit that philosophy when working for a club that might have different ideas?
TM: You have to be somewhat pragmatic! For some of us, this is our job, and with every job, in every walk of life, you are beholden to someone! Some great discussions can be had amongst coaches on Social Media and it's refreshing to see so many get involved, however, the reality is if your manager tells you that he wants a certain type of player, or play a certain style of football you have a choice to make…
BfF: How do you get new ideas? Where do you look for new ideas?
TM: I engage with fellow coaches as much as possible! I was very frustrated, in the early part of my coaching career, at the lack of support once you became qualified. You had to rely on the things you had learned on the course or had been exposed to as a player.
I do an awful lot of reading, not just football, but associated areas too. I’m also experienced enough to see a session that someone else might deliver or post and adapt that to the needs of my players. I’m grateful to all the managers and coaches that I have worked with and who have allowed me to watch their sessions because you can’t beat seeing it come to life on the grass.
These days there are no excuses for coaches, social media, coaching books, websites, local coaches associations are all out there to support clubs and coaches to deliver a better experience for ALL players, not just children. The Licensed Coaches Club through the FA & the increasing presence of the FA Mentor scheme is also good news for coaches & clubs.
BfF: What is the toughest thing that smaller clubs' academies face?
TM: It's tough to try and reconcile the demands of the EPPP with a (largely) part-time workforce and the limitations of the facilities available when a club doesn't own all its own facilities. We are quite fortunate with the support we get from St. Lawrence Academy and Melior School, here in Scunthorpe.
Dependant on location, recruitment can be an issue if you are constantly battling other clubs for the same players, and with the rules being lifted on travel times for the big clubs, they all have a presence at our games. There's no doubt in my mind that parents can be easily swayed if the big clubs come calling. There are also a lot of talented kids who don't want, or whose parents can't afford (time/commitment/financially) to come into Academies as they'd rather play with their mates, then at Under 16 they suddenly become interested.
BfF: In general, are enough young players being given an opportunity?
TM: I'm not sure what else we can do to be honest. There's leagues that cater for all levels of players, the Academies are there for those at the appropriate standard and the bigger Academies hoover up the top talent, I guess that's the way it should be. I see a lot of criticism of the Academy system, particularly when it comes to players being released but the reality is you can't have massive numbers, players develop at different rates and we all believe, I'm sure, that we are making the right decisions at the right times.
BfF: Why don't more English players move overseas when they don't find clubs at home?
TM: This is a strange one for me. I genuinely believe, having lived, worked and visited other countries that our players are as good as any others as they come through the age groups but, other than the boys who go onto the States on scholarships, I think this is vastly underused. I think one of the main problems is a lack of language skills.
With English being such a universal language, a lot of kids don't see the need to learn another one and this restricts them in the job market. Pretty much wherever you go in the world, English is first or second language but I'm not sure a lot of our talented 18 year olds, who don't make it here, are prepared to take that step. Most of them won't even try Scotland or Wales and I don't get it! You have to get out of your comfort zone at some point and I question whether they want it enough.
There will always be the exception, one of my ex-apprentices is currently playing in Sweden and I know a couple of others who played in Belgium but most just drop down the leagues and play with their mates.
BfF: Same goes for coaches, right?
TM: It probably is the same with coaches. The language barrier is still an issue but there's a bit of fear about being away from the UK job market. Some big names have gone abroad, Gary Stevens and Tony Adams being recent examples and whilst I'm sure it has broadened their horizons and developed them as coaches and as people, I don't think it makes them more employable in the eyes of those who matter.
BfF: How do you prepare a player to make move from academy to first team?
TM: I keep going back to it but, realism and honesty. They already know all the stats about first contract, second contract, drop-out rates at 18, 21 etc. because the League Football Education programme informs them, so we have to ensure they are mentally strong enough and adaptable.
If they are going to shrink in under 18 football with their parents being the only spectators, how will they cope with a few thousand when they make a mistake and their team are struggling? They have to make a good impression straight away when they get to train with the first team because managers don't get given a lot of time these days.
BfF: What would you like to see happening?
TM: This is another tough question because we can't influence anything other than the players. I'd like to see players given an opportunity when they deserve it. I'd like there to be more long-term thinking but I understand the process, I've seen first team managers and academy managers get the sack and I can (sometimes) see why, but the majority of players that we produce at 18 years of age aren't ready to be thrown into regular first team action at that age as they are still developing in so many ways.
They need to be eased into the cut and thrust of first team football, but some clubs don't have Development squads or Reserve teams to supplement that process. If a club has limited resources to staff its first team they aren't going to have too many 18 year olds on the books!
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