Coach Surfing – Innovation or Bust?

There have been a number of articles and publications over the past few years outlining the success and progression of British football coaches working in far flung corners of the globe, out of the spotlight of the UK Media but still managing to make some progression in the coaching world. Higher profile cases include Graham Potter and Ian Burchnall, the former and present coaches of Swedish outfit Ostersunds. Success stories of young, innovative, outside the box coaches working here in the UK seem harder to come by for some reason however.

The above examples and indeed many more coaches have seen fit to move abroad in search for coaching work. A number of the cases have very similar reasoning, that the route to coaching positions in the UK is blocked via a severe bottleneck and that at times, limited respect or relevance is placed on those coaches without pronounced football backgrounds or glowing references from higher profile or existing figures within the game.

Arguments in favour of the way things currently work would include the fact that slightly more “old school” coaches or those with strong links to certain clubs or leagues have an existing level of expertise and knowledge which it is reasonable to conclude would be beneficial for any club seeking a new coach. A safe pair of hands who knows how to set a team up, knows how to compete in a certain league and can bring stability and hopefully success to a club. These more traditional coaches have done the rounds, got the right ticks in the right boxes in terms of experience and on paper seem like safe, low risk appointments.

Conversely, if you look at some young innovative coaches who are currently or have worked abroad then it is plain to see that their coaching or football experience is perhaps “limited” to put it generously. Lower level playing careers, perhaps in non-league or even amateur levels, often alongside further academic education as opposed to football education. On first glance, these coaches would seem to represent more of a risk – untried, untested and with no real first hand knowledge of the league, club or even perhaps what being a footballer actually takes or involves. Concerns regarding the respect these coaches will garner, their ability to control and react to situations in the dressing room and have an overarching authority all prevail and lead to opportunities becoming limited. Players might also be more resistant to change or new ideas, with numerous examples of the quiet tactician “losing the dressing room” and an old school, solid, long ball merchant being called in to save the day.

What these coaches do offer is a different approach, research backing up coaching methodologies and analysis of tactics and approaches – all aspects which have been utilised at the very top level it must be said.

A balancing act is therefore required between the football experience and the other innovative, “booksmart” side of things. The default seems to be that old school coaching is the preference, with the analytical side of things representing more of a risk. However, as the game evolves and becomes more and more reliant on the analytical side of things one would assume that this might change – however there does not seem to be any evidence to support this theory at present. As above, many of the largest clubs in the world have a number of in house analytical staff supporting the head coach and first team. With this side of the game expanding, the assumption would be that clubs with less resource would begin to look for and appoint coaches with this ability built in.

This story is the same at all levels, whether this be coaches in the professional game – as per the Ostersunds examples, coaches travelling to previously unheard of clubs in northern Sweden to get a crack at a higher level club – or indeed down at youth levels with coaches struggling to break through. Examples are prominent with any number of young British coaches who travel over to the USA to work for “soccer clubs” and coach the various youth teams and establishments on that side of the Atlantic. In some cases, despite years of experience with players, wining trophies and tangible evidence that they are more than qualified as a youth coach within a club structure, these coaches have been routinely overlooked in favour of those who might have ticked more boxes on paper, they have more of the relevant official coaching badges, even with less on field experience. Now yes, the coaching badge regulatory system is in place for a good reason but the point remains that even at youth level, coaches with alternative or slightly more innovative approaches or concepts are being overlooked for those with a more default, bread and butter CV.

It seems to all come back around to risk however. Clubs want success in relative terms, whether that be wining championships, avoiding relegation or even maintaining the league place. Fans was success. Board members and shareholders need success. In this broad business model, there is no place for high levels of risk and thus, there seems to be limited appetite to move away from the more old school and orthodox coaching style. The taking of a risk on a coach often seems to only be acceptable where those risks are offset by the club having nothing to lose and everything to gain in terms of league position (Ostersunds at the time of Potter’s arrival) or where the situation is such that the squad of players available should be good enough to maintain a level of success and avert disaster even if the innovative, young or unorthodox coach has a bit of a shaky start.

Scottish football is a useful market to investigate this theory in. Taking the first example of Celtic with their tried, trusted and experienced manager Brendan Rogers. Rogers was a young innovative coach a number of years ago and having taken Swansea as far as he could with a refreshing and attractive style of play he had some relative success at Liverpool before his arrival at Celtic as a big name and widely regarded finished article. Elsewhere in the Scottish Premiership, more orthodox managers like Derek McInnes, Neil Lennon and Tommy Wright prevail in an environment where they know the league, can manage their budget and squeeze every last drop out of the players at their disposal, operating in tactical systems that maximise reward against limited risk (very generally, solid at the back with a couple of very good attackers or fast wingers). Rangers have an unknown quantity as a manager in Steven Gerrard, limited coaching experience but from the old school bracket in terms of footballing links. Also, with Rangers’ budget any manager or coach worth his salt should be able to navigate a comfortable second place finish, if not more – thus despite the old school background represents a lower risk.

Hearts however are the most interesting case from recent times. Currently with Craig Levein in his second stint as manager (or some crazy Director of Football/Manager hybrid role), Levein is the personification of safe, secure and solid football. Widely remembered for his infamous 4-6-0 formation whilst manager for Scotland, Levein knows how to set a team up, grind out results and scrape a 1-0. He did however take over from Ian Cathro, a young innovative coach fitting the description of those outlined above. Cathro had worked as a youth coach in Scotland before coaching stints at Rio Ave in Portugal and Valencia in Spain before a spell on the coaching team at Newcastle. Hearts then signed this innovative, new coach with fresh ideas as their manager (albeit under the watchful eye of Levein). Things didn’t work out well, the new ideas, approaches and methodologies didn’t appear to work or be taken on board by the squad. Tactical innovations were poorly executed and the team struggled on the pitch. Upon his dismissal, claims of a lack of fitness, absence of good old hard running and Cathro’s quiet, thoughtful personality were cited as problems throughout his reign.

The general opinion from Hearts fans was that the club was right to sack him, it just wasn’t working on the pitch. Results were poor and whatever he was doing either wasn’t being taken on board by the players or simply wasn’t working. It was better to wash their hands of a failed experiment than to stubbornly continue to pursue an ideal or the idea of future potential flourishing.

So there are recent examples of innovative young, outside the box coaches being afforded opportunities and not quite managing, but there are also those who have succeeded, albeit as above most notably in Sweden rather than the UK. There is a wide spectrum of coaches and experiences within Scottish football, albeit with a failed innovative experiment leaving us to wonder what might have been. It is maybe therefore more down to creating the right environment for innovation and new ideas rather than hiring with hope and expectation and then firing when the new ideas don’t fit the old system. Whether this environment is created through design, or through the situation that the club currently finds itself in is a point for another discussion, what is important however is that young coaches are afforded the opportunity to work and impart their ideas, who knows we might unearth the next Guardiola, Bielsa or Gasperini right here in the UK by doing just that.

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