Welcome to part 2 of my ramblings on my football road-trip stateside. I was in NYC when I left you last and it is there that I pick it up once more. Before heading to DC as a tourist I met up with an old friend Naji Shatliff now Director of Coaching at Monroe township. This is a man you could speak football with for days. We hadn't met in nearly a decade and bar the odd line here or there on twitter or one conversation via FaceTime it amazed me how close our views on coaching are. Over this decade we have both developed a lot as coaches through courses, qualifications and most importantly experience. Many people see the role of the coach as being a position of instruction 'do this' 'do that' and of course at times it has to be that way. Naji however, sees it as a role of 'guidance', set the environment up and watch the players come up with the answers. I left my role in Ireland because I wasn't learning anymore, those who see coaching as a profession not a job refuse to accept such a scenario to develop. Speaking with Naji a man dedicated to continued learning was far more inspirational than watching Patrick Vieira put on a training session.
The following week would result in a break from football, Washington DC didn't disappoint nor did the hospitable Savannah, Georgia. Then a weekend full of learning at the Director of Coaching Diploma in Atlanta. For more on my Atlanta experience see our blog on 'managing up'! Louisville, Kentucky was my next destination where I would get to see James O'Connor prepare his Louisville City side who were top of the USL the third tier of US pro soccer. My host for the stay was an old friend, Douglas Coughlan. Douglas was a former golfing buddy of mine and we also went to NUI, Maynooth around the same time. Doug his wonderful wife Megan and their adorable daughter Bec would literally make me feel 'at home'. No mean feat when home was 3,659 miles away. I got to see James train his team all week prior to a home game. I saw similarities with Viera's NYCFC in terms of playing style. That is to say a playing style not too hard on the eye and yet not too hard for opposing teams to predict. I love that teams are now more inclined to keep the ball on the floor but there is still a lack of creativity from players and perhaps a lack of innovation from Coaches too. Having said that O'Connors sessions were clear and precise and each player knew their job. If I was a betting man I would be expecting good things from Louisville with the Dubliner at the helm. The atmosphere on game day in Slugger field was a bubbly one and with an attendance of over 5,000 people in the third tier of American soccer I looked on in envy wishing I could watch a handful of teams in Ireland that could boast a similar figure of loyal subjects!
(Slugger Field, Louisville)
I wasn't getting homesick at this stage, the Coughlans made sure of this, but I had for the first time in 15 years gone a month without putting on a coaching session. Cold turkey treatment when coming off a drug must be difficult, all I can say is all the sessions I was watching did nothing to deter my addiction. Watching other coaches at work is a luxury and I was beginning to formulate real strong feelings on what 'DNA' would flow through my future teams. I stayed overnight in Kansas City on my way to Denver and I clocked up Mile 2,900 whilst there! The distance from Shannon airport to Boston is in and around that and it put into perspective the sheer size of the footballing landscape in the states. Denver was over 5,000 feet above sea level and it quickly elevated itself from a football perspective too. When I got there I could see the 'Dicks Sporting Goods' Stadium and the 16 pitches spread across in front of it. The Rocky mountains a beautiful backdrop in the horizon, yet I got the instant feeling that the future of the Stan Kroenke (Arsenal Shareholder) owned Colorado Rapids was destined to be anything but rocky. What made the Rapids stand out for me?
Well the facilities were great which is not always the case with some of the set-ups I had witnessed. You could see that they had good people involved. Former FAI man Noel Mooney had touched base with Padraic Smith Sporting Director of the Rapids. He arranged for me to meet Head of Football Development Brian Crookham. Brian was generous with his time, open and insightful. Structurally the Rapids was a very sound organisation. Roles were clearly defined, they had a footballing network which was very well mapped out. Through alliances with clubs all over the continent and a feeder club type set-up with Charlotte Independence in the USL it was clear to me that this was a club that saw the 'big picture'. Academy Players would also have the benefit of playing for the club free of charge, this is not the norm in the US as soccer is very much a 'you want it, pay for it' environment. At the end of my stay in Colorado my big questions were about recruitment. How in an industry where coaches can get paid more by starting up their own 'Club' do you attract the best 'player-centred' 'developers'? In my time watching the different coaches perform it was clear to me many of them had good qualities, many had knowledge but not many had that blend that experienced educators have. The blend of qualities and skill that lends itself to the coach imparting detailed knowledge to his/her players. The sessions I watched were mostly big groups in small spaces. Which is not a bad thing, it can develop players who are good in tight situations and it can lead to an improved first touch. However, too much of this work will not help with decision-making, game intelligence and position specific based learning. I watched one game in particular that illustrated this the Rapids played a deeply inferior Olympic development programme team. When trying to play out from the keeper they would come up against the same scenario. They would play out the right side before recycling the ball to the left-sided centre-back who was now the free man. Every time without fail he would pass the ball into the marked defensive midfielder. Due to the fact they were playing poor opposition they would get away with this, the midfielder would turn without checking for danger but still end up finding a pass thanks to dreadful defending. My point is this, position specific sessions would pose questions like this for centre backs before it happens in the game, the purpose of playing out from the keeper should not be aesthetic, it should be to bring an extra player, namely a defender, into the midfield area with the ball, creating numerical superiority. Big numbers in small spaces will never help players solve this problem.
The other recruitment issue the Rapids face is players. They can offer free soccer to the most talented kids playing within the leagues around them. However, these most talented kids are playing in those leagues because their parents have the money to put them there. How about all those kids who love the game, whose parents love the game but who can't be seen in these leagues due to economic constraints. This is perhaps the biggest issue the Rapids face and probably the game as a whole in the USA faces. One thing is for sure if there is a solution to this problem, having men like Brian Crookham in organisations like the Rapids would have to give you hope. Brian loves the game and his passion for seeing young people develop through playing the game is deeply apparent. I sampled the nightlife in Boulder and spent a day hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park before leaving the fresh and cool state of Colorado.
An overnight drive to Saint Louis was next on the agenda. When I arrived at Scott Gallagher, St Louis to see Tim Lees, training was just about to start. Tim was someone I bumped into in Myerscough College when I was coaching Limerick FC u19s under team manager Tommy Barrett. He was then Wigan Academy U16 coach and he would go on to coach in the Liverpool Academy. He was now director of coaching in St Louis. We will speak about a book Tim wrote in the coming weeks as it is definitely a must read for all coaches. From the outset I was seriously impressed, the players worked on some self-practice in the opening minutes in training. This was something the club would refer to as the 10-minute rule later in the week. Basically, players of a similar position work together without the coach on practising a technique specific to their position on the pitch. Later in the week Technical Director Kevin Kalish would make the point to me that it frustrated him that some of the players struggled to do this correctly. Kevin was another real football man I met along my travels, who is invested in improving the game in his home nation. Struggling or not I felt it was a great way to promote self-practice, a trait all the best players have. It was also great for mentally preparing yourself as a player for the session ahead. During my time with both Derek McCarthy and Tommy Barrett in Limerick this was something we believed in too and it was nice to see it happening thousands of miles away from home.
The rest of the session was position specific, small numbers in realistic sized spaces in contrast to the Rapids. The session finished with a game. One team was clearly set up in a 1-4-3-3 with one holding midfielder. The other team, the one Lees was coaching had a keeper, 3 at the back and 3 in midfield. I was transfixed on the middle of the pitch, jotting players down onto my notepad into positions, before frantically scribbling them out again. It was a diamond in midfield, no it wasn't, is he playing 2 defensive midfielders and 2 attacking midfielders centrally? I had never seen that before a box midfield with a back 3 behind it. I had seen Brazilian teams play with a box midfield, I had seen Marcelo Bielsa set his teams up with all sorts of configurations but I had never seen this. What I would see for the week, lead by Lees but also backed up from a staff of football minds was truly breath-taking. Lees was extremely open, he shared so much with me during the week about his time working in organisations led by people like Martinez and Rodgers. His ability to plan a sessions that followed clear themes for the group and yet allowed the required repetitions for individuals to learn their specific roles was outstanding. It begs the question really, when are countries like England, and in many ways Ireland is worse, going to look to recruit the people obsessed with coaching ahead of the big-names winding down their playing careers. Playing and coaching are different jobs and only ex-players who truly prepare for the transition have success. How many Pearce's and Southgate's must try and fail before there is a pathway for people like Tim lees. Jon Townsend another absolute top-quality coach and another fine man put it best 'Tim is a visionary'. Think England V Iceland, they could have done with a visionary but instead men like Tim choose to immigrate. This says something about our part of the universe. Stephen Kenny and Shane Keegan for me are the stand out managers over the last few years in Ireland. Two men prepared to take jobs not many wanted, to get a start in management. The gamble of trusting them with such power has paid off. Yet our media cry out for ex-pros to get involved in the game just like the English media do. I am all for that but pro's have got to show the determination to learn the ropes of their new profession. Guardiola gained greatly from his time with Barca B, Eddie Howe from his 2 spells at Bournemouth, Ryan Giggs however would appear reluctant to take a lowly job at Swansea?! Neville said Valencia was too good to turn down, the reality is, it was too big to start. Coaching like playing is a trade you learning by doing, by failing and learning from those failures. As players everybody excepts the apprenticeship, the youth teams, the reserves and if you do well the first team. Management and coaching however, well it seems if you do a good job filling the plane with diesel, that is apprenticeship enough to fly the plane!
I would eventually, drive 7000 miles before departing the states. I would visit the IMG academy in Bradenton Florida, thanks to Houston Dynamo Keeper coach Jason Grubb an absolute top quality educator. I would stay with some more wonderful people like the Brown's in Celebration who are the definition of good old traditional warmth. I would revisit the Coughlan's in Indiana and their fantastic community of friends and family. Catch a Florida state game in Tallahassee and get a little lost in Nashville! It's true what they say about travelling you know, you learn a lot about humanity. The people I got to meet, through their kindness reminded me that coaching soccer isn't what many feel it is. Many feel it is a sport science, I guess it can't be said that they are wrong, but for me it's a human science. If in my future coaching endeavours I can inspire learning in other's and do so the way others have inspired me on this journey, then that there will be my definition of success. As for the American game, like the Irish game it has its barriers to change. However, my over-riding feeling is, that like my homeland, there is just too many good people who care about the game to be defeatist about those barriers. Thank you for reading about my Journey and for those who made it happen I will be forever in your debt.
Learn long and prosper,