In February 2016, I sat in the lobby of the Kilmurry Lodge Hotel, Limerick. I was waiting for my boss to arrive. For three months I had agonised about my next steps career-wise. When you are thirty two and you call football your full-time job you know you are blessed. When you work with people who come from your home place, Limerick, a town who loves it sport and a people who love their people. When your uniform hails the crest of your national association. Your game, your country, your home, your people. The prospect of change terrified me.
He arrived we talked openly and honestly, he listened and he said everything he could say within his boundaries. My exit strategy from a job that was essentially my world for the last eight plus years had been hatched and in June I said my goodbye's. On another date we will examine from my view within the organisation, where I feel progress has been made within the association and naturally where more progress is needed. However, todays story is about a Journey. In July I headed to Boston where a two month football specific road trip had been planned.
My mission statement was to: 1. Learn from experienced coaches 2. Tap into the football culture and environment 3. Figure out if this was to be my new home or if I was going to take what I learned home to Ireland. 4. Try not to act in a way that makes future American presidents want to build a roof over Ireland!
Boston was beautiful, I spent a few days being a tourist doing geeky history student things like going on the 'freedom trail walk'. A guided tour through the city where an actor playing a figure from the american revolution takes you to the landmarks about the city, and through anecdotes paints a picture of what it was like to live in Boston in the late 1700s. I loved it and I loved the city too. Some of the locals were in fact a bit too friendly though, a complaint I would not make if the friendly local in question had been a little more Mary a little less John! But that is certainly a story for another blog and perhaps on another website, Lets just say there was some lost in translation moments early on. From Boston I turned off the tourist switch and headed to Plymouth, Massachusetts. My destination was determined by the desire to see a coach I had worked with in 2007 in action. Rob Jones a former young professional at Crewe Alexandra who had his career cut short through injury. Rob is a coach who loves to work on the technical side of the game. Touch, passing, movement you can see the Dario Gradi influence, technique above all else. One of the most impressive things about Rob when you watch him coach is he gets that blend right, the blend of being challenging yet supportive and affirmative. Something yours truly struggles with at times. Keep an eye on the website session plan section for a Rob Jones inspired session on protecting the ball in tight areas coming soon.
(Red Bull Arena)
Leaving the land of the patriots I ventured down the Atlantic coast to New York City. ESPN's JJ Devaney was my host, an old college friend. JJ's wonderful podcast 'Caught offside' will be featured on this website for all you fans who love to listen to a mixture of articulate well researched views on football mixed with unapologetic fandom. Football destination number one was Harrison, New Jersey and the Derby, NY Red Bulls V NYCFC. The stadium, Red Bull Arena was purpose built for soccer, the atmosphere was on a par with the energy created at many an english championship ground I have visited over the years. I say this alluding to the fact that the ground was neither full nor empty. The chants were intermittent and mixed in quality. Sometimes you laughed at the banter back and forth between one of footballs newest rivals. And sometimes you prayed to the football gods that certain chants would never find voice again. The game itself was played largely on the deck, both teams tried to play when possible. Something I noted on the day was both teams capacity, but NYCFC in particular, to play across the back. This is by no means a compliment. NYCFC managed by Patrick Vieira the former Arsenal Captain and world cup and european champion with France. Time after time an NYCFC team that had the technical mastery and world-class experience of Iraola, Pirlo and Lampard in midfield would repeat a pattern that went like this: Right sided Centre Back plays to Right Back, Right Back plays back to Centre Back, the two Centre Backs pass and receive before the ball finds itself to the left back who in terms of opponents around him is exactly in the same scenario as his right back was moments earlier! For me I like to see teams that try to play and you could argue that NYCFC tried to play more than Red Bulls did, you could, but I won't. Vieira's charges for my view passed for the sake of passing far too often, this is an accusation thrown at Pep Guardiola from certain some quarters. However, if you watch Pep's sides they play out from the keeper with patience but never miss an opportunity to break opponents lines, either by a penetrating pass or running with the ball. If you have the technical midfield trio mentioned above I can see why you would play out from the back but your centre backs must be instructed to avoid early passes to the full backs as this invites well organised defences to trap you on one side of the pitch.
My criticisms of Vieira's team, who have performed better results-wise this season, would have to remain internal within the workings of my football brain. For in between NYCFC's game with Red Bulls and their next home game V Colorado rapids I would get to view their training! Devaney worked his media savvy magic and I blagged my way into an open session. When I spotted that Pirlo and David Villa where not in attendance the football fan in me sobbed, not to mention the fact that I, like the rest of the football world, would happily hold hands with Pirlo in public! Perhaps the Boston lost in translation debacle was my fault all along. Moving swiftly on. So the training session, well it was very professional, as one would hope, the warm up was dynamic and explosive towards its climax. It was about 36 degrees celsius and humid too so I was intrigued as to how much they would do. Next they headed into boxes or rondos as they are now popularly referred too. Small sided keep away activities in tight spaces, I weeped once more to lament the absence of my beloved Andrea. Vieira took some defenders away at this stage and worked on their defensive spacing when to press, when to cover, how to shift as a unit. Yes Arsenal fans, arms were aloft and shouts for offside were heard and based on some of their defensive displays during the season this session was well warranted. I had noticed that neither keeper was inspiring during the derby game and watching the NYCFC keepers train individually the form of inspiration required was divine. Vieira has a job on his hands. This shocked me, defensively and particularly in goal the americans have always been solid if not world leading in fact. Later on in my journey a learned man in Colorado would agree with my observation, he would also add that it was a world trend and not just an american one. David Luiz instantly popped into my head, my god he was right.
So final word on Vieira? A hero of mine as a player I must say. He went on to coach the defensive shape of the team from the no. 10 all the way back to the goal keeper. The session lacked detail for me, many of the players went to press when the ball found its destination, rather than press while the ball was travelling. The blind side defenders constantly ball watched, rather than open their bodies out to the dangers of a switch. They say never meet your hero's and from what I saw on the training pitch, I must say, I felt that anti-climatic moment. As a professional person within the game and a UEFA A License coach it would be beneath me to just compliment the session because of his stature in the game, instead I stayed on after the session and showed my discontent by asking for two selfies one with Lampard, one with Paddy! UEFA A my arse we are all just football fans at the end of the day and I loved watching these guys play. As quick as can be I shot the photos off home to my mates, giving it the big-time. The two most notable replies, 'has fat frank lost weight' eluding to the fact he was slightly more slim than I! And from my United following friend 'Ask why he didn't play for Senegal' which I inadvertently read in a winey cork accent!
To be continued!