My Journey – From 2014 to 2017, I was very fortunate to be the u21/u23/Reserve team coach at Liverpool FC academy. The name of the team seemed to change each season!!
The job was a dream come true for me as a young coach and i was extremely lucky to work alongside a very talented staff and lots of players with huge potential. Liverpool FC is a very unique and special club which grips you and creates a life long love for the city and the team. I am no different to thousands of other people who feel this way about the club and people that work behind the scenes.
I joined LFC academy in September 2012 from Chelsea FC, as head of the youth development phase. My main job was to be head coach for the u16 and u15 age groups. In November 2012, I also took on an additional role as assistant reserve team manager to Alex Inglethorpe, who arrived from Tottenham Hotspurs where he had been u18s coach.
In July 2014, the academy had a restructure which see Alex Inglethorpe promoted to academy manager and i was offered the chance to lead the reserve/u23s team. The academy was in a fantastic place at this time with Neil Critchley (now Blackpool FC manager) leading the u18s team and Pepijn Lijnders was hired to lead the u16s (who is now assistant manager to Jurgen Klopp).
The two managers I worked under at Liverpool (Brendan Rodgers & Jurgen Klopp) where excellent for young players and gave the academy boys plenty of opportunity to both train with the first team and also make their first team debuts. In total, 26 players made debuts in the period between 2012 and me leaving the club for Sao Paulo FC in January 2017. The boys dedication & hard work were rewarded by those two managers in giving them opportunities at first team level and for the families and academy staff that had followed their journey through the age groups, that was a fantastic thing to see. So many people had played a little part of those boys making their debuts at the club – The club has a real family feel and shares in the emotions and pride when a young boys achieves a big personal aim.
The players include – Raheem Sterling, Conor Coady, Adam Morgan, Brad Smith, Jordan Rossiter, Jordan Williams, Jerome Sinclair, Jordan Ibe, Samed Yesil, Andre Wisdom, Suso, Joao Teixeira, Thiago Ilori, Kevin Stewart, Sheyi Ojo, Pedro Chirivella, Sergi Canos, Ovie Ejaria, Cameron Brannagan, Ryan Kent, Danny Ward, Connor Randall, Joe Maguire, Harry Wilson, Ben Woodburn and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
In addition to the above players, there is many more who made their senior debuts via a loan move or permanent move to a new club. The LFC academy Alumni reaches far and wide.
Below – I will share some thoughts on how i believe you should approach being an u23s coach.
Coaching football was the easy part, this took place every morning at 11am or on match days – The big part of the job was managing the players and giving them my full support on their individual journey’s.
At times, i was more a life coach than a football coach – but it taught me the importance of a strong management team and also how to manage different people (Ages, cultures, the moment they were living).
It was a job that was hugely rewarding and continues to reward me now over 5yrs since leaving the role.
Managing the u23s on a daily basis
The under 23’s group was a complex group to manage on a daily basis.
The need for strong “guides” – The coaching staff at u23 level must take on the role of “guides” in order to provide coaching that prepares players for a senior first team environment. In my experience of this age group, the successful coaches are ones that are able to manage the players mindset and their own unique pathways.
This involves listening the players “why” and then plotting a plan/timeline with the player on steps they need to take in order to fulfil their potential and aims. The coach to player 1:1 “relationship and feeling” is hugely important in this process to building a strong trust and being able to communicate honesty in feedback to the player(s) on a regular basis.
The focus must remain purely on the player and their journey – from time to time the young player may wobble as they are anxious to make the next step, they may also show some nerves, frustration or over eagerness to make the next step – the feeling at this age group is that they are so close, but also so far from their dreams. The top coaches are able to manage this important moment, not via coaching practices but via their personal skills as a strong guide.
Going the “extra mile” in order to make your players feel important and that you are on their journey personal journey with them is key to being a successful youth coach at any age group, at the u23 level i believe its essential.
The u23 squad of players can vary in age and experience, you can have the u18 players stepping up that are high in energy and innocence, you can also have the boys who are first or second year professionals who are preparing for a loan or finding the realities of being “stuck” in the u23 age group tough as they are unsure of their short term future, you can also have senior players not required in the first team who are dropping down for match time or no longer deemed of the standard required to help the first team – therefore, as a team of staff you will need to manage players that have a lot of individual feeling/thoughts going on. These feelings can be up or down on a daily basis and as a staff its in these moments that your personal skills are required much more than your coaching ones.
Relationships & Feelings – Whatever company, sport or team of staff you manage, I believe its important that you build a solid foundation for success around the strong relationships you build and the feelings/clarity that those relationships provide.
As a football coach, providing clarity to your staff and players is essential. Understanding their own personal aims and goals and then going on a journey with them towards achieving those desired outcomes is the first step.
The building of strong relationships, begins with understanding the other person, before wanting them to understand what you want from them. As a football manager of 20-30 players, its impossible to be able to invest the time into all these people yourself and therefore, you must understand that’s its about building a strong management team – that you manage daily – that has the responsibility to go and line manage sections of the group or certain players on a daily basis. This approach allows for all players to have a personal touch and time with the staff to discuss their aims, thoughts, daily training and anything in between that is relevant towards their development and performance.
This relationship then builds with every conversation, session, game or milestone achieved. The staff get to know the player, the player has a feeling that the staff member is actively helping and going on their personal journey with them. The communication is regular and provides both clarity and honesty, it also doesn’t allow for issues to fester long – with the sole aim of guiding the player to be “THE BEST VERSION OF THEMSELVES” by sticking to a “YOU vs YOURSELF” daily motivation.
The Realities of being an u23s player
Being an u23 player in England can be a difficult existence for a young player. It is the team you have raced to be part of, however the u23 group is the only team in the academy that doesn’t have a direct or decided path to the next team – it is a team of uncertainty.
Moving to the next team – As a young player moves through the academy, the move from team to team at the end of each season is quite smooth as you move from u9, 10, 11 through to the u16s. At this point, players are aiming to be offered a full time contract/scholarship to join the club as a full time player in the u18 squad. After this step into the u18s team, you have the u23s and then senior first team. The jump from age group to age group is not so big, and at the end of each season you naturally move to the next age similar to your pathway through the school/education system. However, when entering the u23s group, you have a less certain future and no guarantee of when and how you will leave this group. It’s the Team that isn’t a team!
A group with the exit routes open – The u23s group has all the exit route open for the players, this could be to move to the first team (permanently or on a day to day basis), to go on loan, to be sold, to be released, to drop down to the u18s or u19s squads (dependent on age and competition). Therefore, the group never has a “Team” feel like the u18s or the lower age groups. It is a group that is always in transition, with players moving or transitioning on their individual pathways. Its also worth noting that although the team is titled u23 – the average age for teams in this league is between 19-20yrs old.
The 4th squad – The u23s is seen as the team below the senior first team and therefore, often referenced as the “2nd team” or “Reserves/B team” within the club. The reality is that the u23 squad is often the 4th squad within elite clubs or the 3rd team within smaller clubs
Team 1 – First team starters (regular first team starting 11)
Team 2 – First team squad players (player that train with the first team daily)
Team 3 – Players on loan (elite clubs will have up to 8-10 players on loan)
Team 4 – U23 squad.
The reality of being an u23s coach
Often you will not be working with a full group/squad of players, therefore you need to be extremely flexible in your approach to managing the group. The role of this team is to support the first team, to follow their schedule, to implement the style and to develop players who are good enough to step up and be ready to perform at first team level when called upon.
The group can often lose the feeling of a team as players are moving between groups both downwards (age permitting) to the u18s or u19s CL youth league squad or upwards to the first team. Each morning at 9.30am, the call would come to confirm which players might be needed to go across for the first team session – this is a call that all the players are wanting/hoping to receive each morning, to have the chance to join the first team group.
Therefore, the planning for this group, must be very flexible due to the ”changing’ squad of players during the season. However, i have always liked to work to a rough plan of action for different phases in the season, across various departments/themes. This is something that i learnt in my time at Chelsea FC academy as a young coach and have continued to use to this day.
Managing the pathway
A player must have a strong belief in their pathway to their aim/goals. For many young players, the immediate focus is to try to get to the first team and make a debut asap…….
The coaching staff must try to manage the players mindset and ensure they have a healthy list of goals/aims that are realistic and have a working plan to achieve them.
A player and coach agreement
I liked to work to a player / coach agreement on the way we would manage our 1:1 relationships on a daily basis.
Its important that a player understands that he has – talent – that is big enough for the club to invest in his future as a player, hence the offer of a full time contract. However, talent is not fixed and the staff are their to help with some understanding and focus around what makes you ‘unique” and how to structure your training to develop and improve further.
The staff are not their to manage motivation, this must come from the player. The staff want to work with players that are motivated to improve and fulfil their dreams. The player must also have strong integrity, both inside but importantly outside the club in their life choices.. The staff will ensure they are educated on these areas and given support/guidance. However, the player will from time to time have choices to make outside the club that will demonstrate / show their character and dedication to being a professional athlete. This will include, diet, sleep, behaviours and sacrifices that are sometimes difficult for young people to make, especially when their friends or siblings are able to do those things.
The next part of the discussion is probably the most critical. A player must believe in their ”Pathway” to fulfilling their dreams. I have seen so many talented young players in the English academy system that lost faith in their pathway to the first team (due in part to the strength of the Premier League) and fall away as the lack of faith had a huge negative impact on their focus, motivation, integrity, which ultimately reduces their talent over time. For some players that can happen very quickly and for others it can happen gradually over a period of month’s or even 1-2yrs. But, as a younger age group coach, I had seen this happen too often and when i got to u23 level, i knew that was going to be the area that i would need to manage the most.
After pathway, comes ambition and i always speak to players about constantly resetting their aims and goals as they achieve each step. This is important as a player might outgrow the club you are working at and need to show they have the drive and ambition to take the next big move in their career to a new club and/or country. A player may also achieve things quicker than expected and therefore, need to be challenged or provoked to do more.
Therefore, the player and coach agreement is something that i think is important to establish early in building relationships and can be referenced back to when needed on the responsibility the player has but, also the promise you will make to him on upholding your side of the agreement.
The basic essentials
Alongside the player/coach agreement is the basic essentials required to play football at a high level.
- High level of technical ability
- Tactical understanding and intelligence
- Athletic capabilities to play in the style of the team – or – positional demands
- To demonstrate integrity and elite professional behaviours
- To have a high level of availability / robustness to train and play on a daily basis
The above is just a simple checklist of five areas that all players must desire, but around that you must have a strong character and competitive grit to push yourself every day to achieve and win, Winning should be seen as a the daily you vs yourself mentality to be the best/better version of yourself.
Look at the first team – and agree that each players pathway was unique.
Analysing the first team squad is a simple but powerful way of demonstrating that every players journey is unique. You can grab the following information on the first team squad
- Age now
- Age when making debut
- Seasons since making debut (seasons as a first team player)
- Appearances before joining the club
- Leagues the player has played in
- Number of loans (if any)
- Number of transfers (if any)
What this will show is that each of the first team players had a different journey to reach their current position at the club.
Some questions you can answer from the information are :
- How many of the players were ready for our first team at 19?
- How many needed to build up to that stage via a smaller club or loans?
- What was the age of their debut?
This process of analysing the first team will also enable you to manage the mindset of the players in your group and raise their awareness on the type of journey they might need to take to build a career in the game.
The lift or the stairs – which one will you take?
The lift = A smooth transition from the u18 team, u23 team and into the first team squad as an established and important first team player. Examples of this type of player in the PL are Trent Alexander-Arnold, Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford – players that come through their clubs youth academy teams to establish themselves (over time) as a senior first team player
The stairs = A journey that a majority of players take where they go on a loan transfer or a series of loan transfers in order to get experience of playing first team football and building on that experience to make a PL career. The prime example of this type of player is Harry Kane. Another type of “stairs” is coming through a smaller clubs academy in the football league and then arriving to a PL club. Players who made this type of journey include John Stones and Harry Maguire.
The race to 100 – building a career
One strategy that we used was to plot the timeline for a player leaving school at 16, to making a career in the game as a professional. We have the timeline as a 6yr journey from school leaver to a player in their 20’s that was now playing regular first team football (ideally inside our club or in the football league).
We had a belief that after 100 first team games, that a player was now a professional football who was established at a level. The journey of 100 games would also naturally sort out the level you would play at – you could make a debut at a PL club and drop down the leagues, you could make a debut at a lower level and come upwards or you could sustain your performances at a certain level.
The race to 100 was something that we would constantly emphasise with players alongside the need to get out of the u23s group at 19yrs old and begin playing senior football, mixing within a senior changing rooms and under the pressure of playing for 3 points each game.
The perfect training week
I believe that its possible to help a player devise their bespoke “perfect training” week that ensures they arrive on match day – in the best place – both mentally and physically ready to perform play. The game can then be unpredictable, but how you arrive to the changing room/stadium is your choice.
This can be achieved by training providing you with practice on the things you are good at, things you want to improve, things you like to do for confidence, top ”sparring” training players to compete against, a bespoke gym programme, food, doctors and medical staff, analysts for support on role clarity or best practice examples and a specific coach that is on your journey with you as a ’guide’ that has regular chats on your development and provides both specific training and feedback to support your personal development.
Outside the club, you can structure your week to be around people that make you feel good, to do things that you like to do for fun or relaxation, to educate yourself or to get the right amount of sleep and recovery between sessions. Once a player begins to have a strong self awareness then these self management areas become rituals they can use on a daily basis to create their own “Perfect training week”
The people and environment inside the club also have a big role to play. The club must adopt a “Can do” mentality and the staff must always speak with optimism – you must have people that have a natural enthusiasm and positivity to inspire those qualities in others.
Sharing best practice via notice boards, social media or carefully thought out workshops all play a role in creating the environment that you all want to be part of – each day is a learning day and you should see the positivity in the way people bounce into the training ground each morning – we have the best job in the world.
The family feel
The players must share in each others journeys, you must do things together as a group that bring the boys back to being just young people again.
This was an area that we worked hard on as a staff. We remembered to share in each players milestones of a loan, debut, new contract or birthday to create a special bond. We also did group activities to provide memories and shared experiences amongst both the staff and players.
Come dine with me – When a player moved out of their parents house or digs and into their own home, they had to invite two members of staff over for a 3 course meal. This enabled us to see how the player was living, to check their cooking skills and to give them any advice about their lifestyle at home. We made this light hearted and actually used LFC tv to create a come dine with me style programme and we voted a winner for each season.
How the academy works – We had four players come to work early and do a 3hr shift across the different departments at the academy. These people were all working that to support them as players and we wanted them to understand how much effort and work these people were doing to create the environment and maintain the facilities for them. Again, LFC tv supported the idea with filming and interviewing the players after the experience – we had one player work with the kitchen staff to prepare breakfast, one player in the laundry on kit, one with facilities on cleaning and another with the ground staff. This was a big learning experience for the boys.
Follow a team in the fa cup – We followed Southport FC in their FA Cup runs and the players used to meet at the stadium, buy their own ticket and stand behind the goal to watch the game together. This was to educate them on the different levels and styles of football down the leagues and also the importance of the FA cup to some clubs finances. We also used to visit league one and two games in order to prepare our players for a loan. Again, this was part of learning how the game looked outside of our academy setting and was especially powerful when we had one of our loan players playing in the game.
League managers visiting – From time to time, we had different league managers come to watch our u23 sessions and provide feedback on the group to staff and directly to the players. Dean Smith, Paul Buckle, Gareth Southgate, Aidy Boothroyd were all invited into the academy in their various management roles or job within the FA. Those experiences and the feedback was excellent for everyone.
We also had really elite mentors coming in to support and work with the players on a regular basis such as Steve McManaman, Rob Jones, Robbie Fowler, Kenny Dalglish to name a few. The more positive role models the better and Liverpool FC had so many people willing to give their time and advice to help support the young players.
Life skills – The education and welfare department ensured players had cooking, driving and general house maintenance lessons on a weekly basis. The players also used to visit the local hospital, hospice and regularly go along to the homeless shelter to work a lunch shift serving food. All these initiatives were so important to creating the environment and people we could be proud of as an academy.
Managing the “support” network
The player support network would naturally grow as they became older. As a junior academy player it was often the parent, school and academy creating a strong network around the child to support their development in all areas.
As a player leaves school and is offered a professional contract, then other factors can become involved with agents and more outside influences via the media as they become well known.
We would discuss this with the players and encourage them to be very careful of who they allow inside their support network and how they must manage the energy and positivity they have around them. This is easier said that done in some cases, and is also a personal choice for each player and family. However, the ones who get this area right are often the players who are able to stay focused on their development and avoiding unnecessary distractions a little easier.
The memories & lasting relationships
My time at Liverpool is filled with amazing memories and relationships.
I returned to the club in September 2017 as – head of coaching – for the foundation phase age groups, which was a full circle from the job I was leaving as assistant manager at Sao Paulo FC and my previous role as u23s coach at the club. The new role meant I had the privilege of coaching across the foundation, youth development and professional development phases at LFC academy which is something I’m immensely proud of.
In July 2018, I joined Rangers FC and now I am still the biggest supporter of the LFC academy and in regular contact with the senior academy staff at the club.
When discussing the club with the staff, its always “We” and the academy is a place that I love to visit. On a weekend, I am looking for the former academy players that are now off in the “real world” and living their dreams as professional footballers up and down the country or across the world – I still have a huge pride in seeing them doing well on the pitch, but also when I see them getting married, having children and experiencing milestones in their daily life.