Hear from the U's Director of Football
The week leading up to our last home game against Gateshead showed the value of our football structure and why we believe that whilst it may not be that common, especially at our level, it perfectly suits the coaching and development philosophy that permeates through every level of the club.
The most important result at any club is the first team. Results define the club’s final league position and therefore ultimately decide the status of the club. Therefore, the most important employee must surely be the Head Coach. Quite simply, he is responsible for results. He coaches the players, selects the tactics and picks the team. His focus must always be the next game, the next result. Therefore, I find it ludicrous that in the old school structure at clubs, the Head Coach is often not a coach and he will employ someone else to fulfill that most crucial role. He then gets involved in a myriad of operational matters, financial considerations, periphery activities and issues that all relate to the long-term future, particularly youth development, when his real concern is the immediate future, i.e. winning on Saturday! In an industry where the “now” is so crucial, why would you allow your most important employee to be potentially distracted by anything not relating to the next game? You could also argue that in an industry where results are so crucial why employ anyone who would not be “hands on” in that role. Their greatest strength must surely be to work with the players each day on the training ground to improve them individually and collectively. That is the process that brings results. That is the job.
Our structure, put quite simply, allows Richard to do just that. Whilst he obviously gets involved and is interested in all facets of the club, Richard can always focus on preparing the team for the next game, which in this league often comes around within 3 or 4 days and varies so much in the type of challenge it presents. I am proud to have put together a team off the pitch that operates in support of Richard to cover all the bases that our finances allow. We always want to do more. We always want to develop how we work but Ben Strang (Chief Scout), Matt Walker (Head of Sports Science), Martin Davies (Goalkeeper Coach) and Mark Bonner (Youth Team Coach) are absolutely top notch in every respect and have all been added to the staff since we started to totally change the football culture of this club from February 2011 onwards. The only member of staff from previous regimes is physiotherapist Greg Reid, another individual of the highest calibre in his field.
The quality of our staff, and most importantly the wealth of knowledge, experience and coaching ability that Richard brings, has allowed us to develop our processes and improve the level of professionalism that we can give our players and therefore demand from our players. That reflects in what happens on the pitch. The other crucial role of the Head Coach, and an area where it overlaps most notably with the Director of Football, is recruitment. The seven days between the games against Hyde and Gateshead was a case in point and an indication on how we work.
Richard and I agreed that we needed to look at the options that might be available for loan when the window opened again on Tuesday 10 September. That night we hosted a Peterborough XI to give players that had not been playing regularly some competitive minutes on the pitch. The fact that we had to find six trialists to make up the team showed the paucity of our squad, especially in the striking department, due to injuries and illness. We also had the added uncertainty of whether our two England C players would return from their trip to Latvia unscathed and a programme of five games in 15 days, eight games in 29 days or in other words, a busy month!
Therefore, we both went to watch a player on Tuesday afternoon playing for a League One U21 team and made enquiries about his availability. At the same time, we became aware of a player that was available on loan from Crystal Palace, Kwesi Appiah. They had omitted him from their 25 man squad for the Premier League and having lost to Bristol City in the Carling Cup, we knew that he would not feature in any of their games and was too old for their U21 team. Ben and I remembered him from December 2011 when we saw him playing for Margate, attracting the interest of several Championship clubs before going to Selhurst Park. Richard remembered him from an U21 game last season, when he was watching a player from Bolton Wanderers with Ben. In a nutshell, that shows the importance of continuity, stability and a structure where the intellectual property of our scouting remains the club. All too often, if a manager is responsible for recruiting all the staff and they all work for him, then they all leave when he departs, along with all their knowledge, information and contacts. With managers changing so frequently, that is a crazy situation for the club.
Richard spent his Wednesday, when the players were off, watching every minute of his appearances for Crystal Palace in the Championship, Carling Cup and U21 matches on Wyscout. This is a scouting system that we use, enabling us to see any player for any club in any game in any country. It is absolutely superb and a scouting tool that we use very effectively. Once Richard decided that he wanted the player, it is my job to negotiate with his club, his agent and talk to the player to firstly ensure that is affordable and then if that is the case, to make it happen. Richard doesn’t need to get involved in that hassle, he can concentrate on preparing for Gateshead by watching their recent games on Wyscout, studying Ben’s match report, formulating his team selection and then working on the game plan with the players in training. Richard’s preparation in this respect is meticulous. He familiarises himself with every detail of the opposition and then gives the players a concise briefing with whichever strengths and weaknesses he wishes to highlight, often with clips of their games. Our players really are properly prepared for every game, down to the smallest details. It doesn’t guarantee success but is does gives you the best chance of achieving success.
When people ask me “who has the final decision on signings?” or “what happens if you disagree on who we should sign?” it makes me smile. It never gets to that.
I think the key to working together is mutual respect, a common shared philosophy, empathy for each other’s job and communication. The fact that I have experienced being in the hot-seat has certainly helped me. It really is a job like no other and one that you have no idea what it is like until you do it. By working closely with Richard and always knowing his thoughts on the team and how we can improve, there are never any surprises. He makes our job of recruiting much easier by being very definite as to what he wants and having a clear picture of the jigsaw in his head. That allows us to be extremely targeted in our approach. Richard knows and respects the financial parameters within which we must operate, so when you combine the type of players we want with who we can afford, it quickly narrows down any list of potential signings. We only sign players that Richard wants to sign. Every signing is a player that he has either identified and I will then watch, or that we have identified through our scouting processes and Richard then watches. When timescales for loan signings make it impossible to achieve that in the flesh, as with Kwesi, Richard does it on his iPad! The key thing is that everything is planned, everything is considered and everything follows a process of due diligence.
We are proud of the fact that apart from one player who turned us down in the summer to join a club in the SPL, every player we have approached directly to sign has ended up putting pen to paper. Despite the laughable comments of other managers, I can assure you that throughout the negotiations, we have sold the club to the players rather than outbid anyone. We maintain a strict wage structure, which makes negotiations fairly simple and keeps equilibrium within the squad. Our max is our max. It also ensures the club operates within its means. It is a tough one for other clubs to accept or understand, but doing your homework, watching so many games, going the extra mile, taking time to meet players properly, convincing them we can help them achieve their football ambitions and all the intangibles about our club do really make a difference. When you read our players talk about our training ground, our staff, our fans, our stadium, our history, our youth structure and our philosophy we haven’t told them to say it. They genuinely believe it and it is how we can and will punch above our financial weight.
Whilst adding to the first team squad and making sure the immediate future was taken care of before last Saturday, I also had a number of meetings that were just as important in their own way, as well as watching our U15’s against Colchester and our U18’s in the FA Youth Cup. Marc Tracy, our Academy Operations Manager, and I met two of our most outstanding young players, Matthew Foy and Elliott Thorpe with their parents for differing reasons. Both players have been with us since they were 7 years old. Matt is now 14 years old, just embarking on his U15 year, and Elliott is twelve. Matt already trains on his day release programme with our youth team, and we are very excited about his future. His parents, Steve and Marcia, have been tremendously supportive since Matt started with our new youth system in our inaugural season at the club, and we are delighted to show the same faith in Matt, by offering him a scholarship two years early. He is an exciting prospect and we look forward to him progressing in our U15/16’s before starting his scholarship in July 2015. I will talk about Elliott on Tuesday…
Enjoy today’s game and keep raising the roof!