In a series entitled ‘inside the academy’ this blog reflects on the experience and insight gained from visiting professional football clubs and discussing pastoral care for players past, and present.
Liverpool FC are the first to feature. Accepting an invitation from Michael Edwards (Sporting Director), the gates to their new purpose built training facility in Kirkby opened, and a seat n the luxurious boardroom awaits. The two-day trip happily coincides with the visit of KRC Genk for a double header, result! The U19’s fell to their first UEFA Youth League defeat of the season after Genk scored a stoppage-time winner claiming a 1-0 win at the academy. Only for the senior side to avenge that loss with a convincing 2-1 win at Anfield only a few hours later. Honours even.
In truth, this was a fact finding mission with the focus on pastoral care, and the aim of sharing good practice. Firstly, it is worth saying that the experience we receive from club to club varies greatly. You simply cannot second guess what might happen when you enter a training ground as an ‘unknown’.
If you’ve never had the privilege to step foot beyond the imposing iron gates of any Category 1 training ground, allow me to paint the picture. On arrival most share a striking resemblance to that of a military base, or the institutions designed to house the countries undesirables. A gatehouse and barrier are always the first indication you’ve arrived at your destination. A security guard appears from the comfort of an enclosed office acutely aware of your arrival some 500 meters away as the multiple camera feeds update every inch of the sites boundary. Security checks conducted, questions answered via an interactive screen, photographic ID produced, the security staff satisfied and our arrival announced, a stark contrast awaits when you pass through the lacklustre entrance.
Greeted with immaculately presented grass pitches (thank heavens for some prevailing traditions of the modern game), roaming youth players and passing staff meet you with a hello and smile. Our first impressions? A welcoming atmosphere littered with polite and humble people. With striking logo emblazoned buildings and pitches as far as they eye can see, this is a disciplined functional environment.
The enjoyment, the insight, and the importance of the information earned is dependent on the people you encounter. Our first meeting was with Alex Inglethorpe (Academy Manager). I’d already had a few conversations with Alex over the phone, and knew by his tone and the passion in his voice, player welfare was firmly on his radar. We had an engaged audience. A good start.
As is the case in the football world, and those that have made football their working life after playing has stopped, there’s a ‘feeling out’ period at that initial meet. You bounce questions and slowly latch onto each others stories of yesteryear. Crossover almost always happens in what is still a very insular and network driven industry. It’s not what you know and all that. Ours was a fairly obvious common thread. In the lavish surrounds of elite football we bond over non league coaching and management. Kindred spirits of all things non league Alex at Leatherhead and myself and Adam at AFC Totton. Cutting your teeth in coaching with players that love the game and play for for enjoyment and beer tokens (mainly). We talk about the relative unknown skills a manager needs in non league such as; washing kit, driving the mini-bus, pumping up balls, meeting sponsors to squeeze whatever money you can to keep your club afloat, not the usual coaching badge content.
However, it’s your development in dealing with people that is probably our biggest learning curve when transitioning from player to coach. Being both a mate and the gaffer throws all sorts of challenges and curve balls to any aspiring coach. To the non league player, football is their outlet, their enjoyment and often their distraction. You have to invest in the players’ life. Find out what stresses and strains they are enduring. And help! There is no safety net in non league, you become the expert in psychology by default, or you fail in helping the mental health and wellbeing of your players.
The talk of why myself and Adam have spent time to create a support network for ‘the football family’ takes us through the first 30 minutes of our time together. All fairly scripted, the standard dialogue you would expect from a person in a senior figure at an historic and established academy on the subject of mental health.
And then that human connection hits Adam and Alex like a train, almost instantly the guard drops. All it took was for Alex to mention Tommy Taylor (his former coach at Leyton Orient). Adam smiles, “he gave me my league debut for Cambridge United as a 17-year old”. Well that’s’ me done for the next 10 minutes.
Now firmly a lunch meeting, we had two new additions join our table. Enter Yvie Ryan the clubs Performance Coach. How Yvie is utilised by the club is interesting. The first of our three take homes messages. Traditionally, coaches and sport science staff would recognise a player showing signs of distress in their behaviour and would either refer the player to the club psychologist, or request the psychologist to arrange a meeting with the player. Either way, any diagnosis and initiated strategy would be owned by the appropriate department or staff member.
Here’s the twist. Alex sees Yvie’s work more akin to that of a ‘consultant’. She is there to educate and upskill the frontline staff involved with player development. Ensuring she is a regular visitor to the grass, the gym, the treatment room and analysis suit. In practice this places Yvie in effective collaboration with the player and staff member, increasing what we like to call in the academic world ‘ecological validity’.
Ok, so I said earlier that we had two people join our table. Welcome King Kenny. Now I can’t tell you any of the wonderful anecdotes or memories of Sir Kenny Dalglish’s career, these past times remain his to tell, and ours to enjoy. Suffice to say, he can hold an audience and we were very fortunate to have the ear of such a footballing legend. Two hours flew by and it was now approaching kick off. What I can tell you is this, there is an ease and rapport between Kenny, the youth players, and the staff.
Kenny recalls with alarming accuracy a youth football festival some weeks prior to our visit, even naming the stand out players. The U19’s are huddled in the foyer awaiting a team meeting prior to beginning their pre match warm up. Each player that catches the eye of Kenny either nods, smiles or greets the man. Kenny had time for everyone. He added an enthused commentary on the game events throughout to the small cohort of people stood in close proximity from our balcony view. Often challenging the lads in certain situations (including the Genk players) and congratulating touches, skilful movements, and always praising brave blocks and individual work-rate for the team.
It was a great insight into how to integrate, respect, and treat a club legend. But key to this was the humility and eagerness of that club legend to be part of the process. Football courses through the veins of many an ex player. Having a former decorated player, coach, manager and director of football walk the walls of the training ground strengthens the ‘Liverpool connection’. I’ve not witnessed many operate in this way, but I’m hopeful it happens. Basic learning and teaching theory points to ‘lived experience’ as a key theme in the transfer of knowledge. Who better to act as a sounding board for staff and a presence around its youth players? This surely is ‘added value’.
And lastly, our third take home message. And this is quite innovative. Liverpool have created a new role tilted ‘Alumni Manager’. This was designed with the idea of contacting and supporting those players no longer at the club. In a shift from the norm, this adds a new dimension to player welfare. Focus has remained largely on the registered players for many successful academies with a conscious effort to reach out and assist released players. Now a leading football power is trialling a new initiative to promote ‘Alumni support’, could this be adopted by others?. Open to all players who have at one stage represented the club at any playing level or age.
This for me this missing across the sport. If you read the following extract from my former colleague Gary Issott, and Alex’s equivalent at Crystal Palace FC, he says; “As an industry we’ve got to do more for post-player care. It’s a traumatic experience, effectively players are being sacked if they don’t get a new contract. It affects your finances, your wellbeing, your ego and status, your dreams, you lose friends from a dressing room environment. So it’s a huge trauma leaving a professional football club.”
Candid, blunt and hard hitting from a man who’s spent over 20 years living and breathing everything associated with youth development. Players’ transitioning out of the game is so complex. Retirement, injury and unemployment all manifest a number of serious mental health issues.
The PFA will do well to share a coffee with Alex as his team capture this impactful longitudinal data. How can we triage the trauma? We can but raise awareness of the good initiatives and share practice that has a positive impact on individuals. This is after all about helping people. Get sharing, keep caring.
Match day at Anfield is always special. Just before kick off, and on cue, Liverpool supporters enter full Gerry and the Pacemakers mode. It’s a spine tingling moment. The presence of its former players at Kirkby and Anfield, together with the creation of the Alumni Manager are further evidence that at Liverpool FC ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.