Tuesday 20 August 2019

Life in a Championship club

Sacking of first team boss had no impact on academy

Recruitment starting early! Jason Goodison coaching at a Year 1 (Junior Infant) event at Colney
Recruitment starting early! Jason Goodison coaching at a Year 1 (Junior Infant) event at Colney
Assisting Greg Crane, the 'Extra-Time Skills' mastermind, during a session with a local grassroots club
Jason's training set-up before one of those Friday night sessions he writes about below

There's a growing interest in the English Championship among soccer lovers on this side of the pond, with the recent large influx of Irish players to the second tier of the game cross-channel including our own Kevin O'Connor who has joined Preston North End.

Jason Goodison was in a unique position to learn more about the day-to-day running of a club when he spent the 2016-'17 season on the Norwich City coaching staff.

Here's his second and final behind the scenes insight, focusing on the impact of a managerial departure on the rest of the club.

'There are 92 professional football clubs in the English Football League. When Paul Cook left Portsmouth on the final day of May, it marked the 59th managerial departure of the 2016-'17 season. Yes, 59, since September. Simply staggering.

The harsh truth is that most do not exit on the terms that Paul Cook did, leaving of his own accord to join what he perceived to be a bigger club. Most are relieved of their duties - sacked and quickly disposed of. Thanked for their efforts before swiftly becoming part of the club's history. 

On Friday, March 10, Alex Neil was sacked as the manager of Norwich City Football Club after 791 days in charge. He was the 40th departure of the ageing season.

The news broke during one of our evening 'Pre-Academy' sessions. Oblivious to the major shift at the top of the club, we were briefed individually by a member of staff midway through the session, whispering in each of our ears before swiftly leaving through the back door of the dome.

It is an interesting situation to be in. Regardless of your opinions, there is a sombre feeling around the grounds. A man has just lost his job, his passion and his livelihood.

Leaving Colney that evening, I expected to be ambushed by journalists and reporters, similar to the scenes on Sky Sports News in the dying hours on transfer deadline day where herds of media wait outside the clubs' gates, hunting for even the smallest snippet of information. As if I knew anything more than they did.

I felt slightly let down when I pedalled out through the gates to nobody. Yet, it was comparable to the days that would follow. There was no stewards' enquiry. No staff meeting to outline the course of action for the club. Alan Irvine, the club's head coach, stepped in to become the interim manager until a long-term replacement was found.

Then, that was it. Nothing else changed, at least not in the day-to-day running of the Academy. Events like this can show how separate academies are from the first team squads they look to supply.

The academy (excluding the Under-23s who operate concurrent to the first team) is structured to operate completely independent of the first team. For this reason, nothing my colleagues nor I did was affected.

The academy works to its own philosophy and structures, not those set or dictated by the first team. You may wonder why this is the case.

In the trigger-happy world of professional football the average length of time that a first team manager keeps his job is just 1.23 years. Far from a coincidence, the Championship is the most difficult division to retain a job.

Youth development requires structure and consistency. For Norwich City Academy that is in the shape of a ten-year plan under their new coaching philosophy designed to create independent decision makers and problem solvers. A new philosophy and vision every 1.23 years would do little to aid this development. Patience in cases like this can be rewarded.

One of those academy-driven initiatives, and a personal favourite, was a project we called 'Extra-Time Skills'. Extra-Time Skills was a compilation of clips of our academy players practising a pre-determined skill.

Challenges were chosen by the staff and could vary from free-kicks to crossbar challenges. Once the challenge is set, the academy boys have a few weeks to go and film some clips away from Colney.

This window also allows for the staff to find some free time to do some filming of their own. While it was not always the most serious affair, it produced some Spielberg-ian moments of video production.

To truly express the importance of laughter and enjoyment in football development, Greg Crane, a Youth Development Phase coach and the mastermind behind the Extra-Time Skills phenomenon, would be the hilarious presenter.

With some clever video-play, famous moments such as David Beckham's free-kick in injury time versus Greece would be recreated. Or on another occasion, Greg managed to consistently strike the crossbar on a goal inside the dome from various places around the training ground, despite the dome being roofed. It is the extra efforts of quality staff like Greg which encapsulate the heart of Norwich City Academy, and give the club its friendly feel.

When every clip is collected and the staff have voted for a top three, a video is crafted together containing every player's clips and some carefully chosen background music. The video is then made available for all staff, players and parents to watch via Replay Analysis, the academy's online video storage system.

While 'Extra-Time Skills' gives the children an opportunity to express themselves in front of a large audience, it can also act as a much-needed confidence boost to make the coveted top three. Aside from that, it represents a perfect opportunity to heighten the fun and creative environment within a football club. It is certainly something which could be utilised in a grassroots club with a little bit of technological know-how.

The second half of the season allowed me to explore the country's academies further, adding Birmingham, Reading, Luton Town and Tottenham to the list of visited footballing havens. Tottenham was the most scenic, challenging Chelsea's lavish lake with a dozen-hole putting green. One would forget that this is a place people come to practice football.

With the season coming to a close, there was still one foreboding question which couldn't be ignored. It was a question which dictates academy boys' early careers and has the potential to make a child's dreams become reality. It was the question of retain or release.

For half of the academy boys who are in the middle of their two-year contract, they can breathe a little bit easier. For the rest, tensions rise in the latter stages of the season. Regardless of how fun and protective the environment created is, performing to potential becomes important. Pressure begins to rise.

In the melee, it is easy to forget that these footballers are only children, some as young as seven or eight. The season ending put me in an unfamiliar situation of having to make decisions like these myself on our 'Futures' programme players.

While some decisions admittedly take more time than others, every decision is a mammoth one when you are deciding on children's futures. With just 180 of the 1.5 million boys who play organised football at any one time in the United Kingdom making it to play in the Premiership, talent identification remains the most difficult task in football.

There are far too many people to mention that deserve thanking. While I cannot think of any individual that did not welcome and help me during my time in Norwich, those who shared an office with me and worked with me day-by-day deserve the most gratitude.

My year in Norwich City ended on May 20, however what I've experienced and learned will last a lot longer than just a year and act as a base for every new challenge.'

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jason will be putting his experience in Norwich to good use as a coach with the Wexford F.C. Under-15 team whose inaugural league season begins in Ramstown on Sunday versus Cobh Ramblers.

As for Alex Neil, his latest adventure on the managerial merry-go-round has taken him to Deepdale as Preston North End boss where he gave a first team debut last week to Screen's Kevin O'Connor, one of the last signings made by Simon Grayson before his departure for Sunderland. And so it continues!

Wexford People

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