The most famous English coach you’ve never heard of

I came across a fascinating article about the development of young footballers in England and made a note to make sure I blogged about it. For those you who are part of the Soccer Coaching Forums [link to right] you’ll have seen this but for anyone else I think this is worth the 5 minutes it’ll take you to read the article because it offers an interesting & independent insight in to the way we’re developing players and what some of the fundamental problems are.

I’ve copied the article, provided by the Northern Echo below to save you another click in order to read it.

The World Cup final took place yesterday, and for the 11th tournament in a row, England were not involved. With the nation seeking an explanation for last month’s humiliating exit in South Africa, Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson met Middlesbrough’s visionary conditioning coach Roger Spry and discovered the roots of the problem can be found at youth development level.

IN Holland and Spain, the two nations that contested last night’s World Cup final, Roger Spry is regarded as a visionary figure who merits respect. In England however, the land of his birth, the conditioning coach is seen as an outsider who refuses to conform to the system.

The name might not mean a lot to you, but this is yet another example of where football in this country is going horribly wrong.

“I’ve been saying English football needs to change for the last 35 years,” said Spry, in the wake of England’s humiliating underachievement in South Africa. “But people have always seen me as an opponent, so no one has ever really listened.”

The bitter gripes of a footballing failure with a grudge against the English coaching system? Not exactly.

In the words of UEFA technical director Andy Roxburgh, Spry is the most famous English coach working in world football today, even if only a handful of people in his homeland have heard of him.

Having taken up coaching after injury curtailed a brief playing spell with Wolves, the Midlander has worked with some of the biggest names in the game during a coaching career that has taken him to more than 20 different countries and countless major clubs.

He worked with Sir Bobby Robson at Sporting Lisbon and was the boss of a certain Jose Mourinho during a spell at Vitoria Setubal. He was Arsene Wenger’s confidante when the current Arsenal boss was in charge of Japanese side Grampus Eight and has worked alongside the likes of Carlos Quieroz, Mario Zagallo and Carlos Alberto Parreira in Europe and South America.

He is currently combining a pre-season spell with Middlesbrough with his other duties as technical advisor to the Austrian FA and one of UEFA’s leading coach educators.

He is, in other words, a figure who has seen it, done it and worn the official club Tshirt at a variety of institutions over the last 20 years, so given English football’s inexplicable reluctance to entertain any sort of input or criticism from overseas, that surely makes him a figure worth listening to as the Football Association conducts the traditional bout of soul-searching that has accompanied England’s exit from every major tournament for the last two decades.

“Let’s get one thing straight, I’ve never had a problem with English players or coaches,” said Spry, who, almost uniquely among English coaches, learned his trade in Portugal and Brazil and has never attended a single FA-affiliated training course. “But where I have a major problem is the coaching syllabus they have to work to.

“I’ve worked in more than 20 different countries and I’ve seen the way they do things.

Take a so-called small country in football like Greece, where I worked for four or five years with Panathinaikos. You see their coaching system, and it’s miles ahead of ours. It really is.

“People say, ‘Yeah, but that’s Mickey Mouse football’.

Well it’s Mickey Mouse football that was good enough to win the European Championships. We have to start looking at other ideas.”

But what specifically does Spry think is wrong? Plenty as it turns out, but his chief criticisms of the way the English system develops young players can be split into three headings – a focus on the wrong things, an obsession with a youngster’s size and a culture that promotes too much competitive football at too young an age.

Having witnessed at first hand the training methodology that is prevalent in Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Portugal, Spry is convinced the English system is obsessed with speed and strength to the detriment of almost all other skills.

And while speed and strength are clearly important in a footballer, they can easily be overcome by an opponent with other talents.

“We produce players in this country,” said Spry. “But we don’t produce players ready for modern football.

“We produce players that are fast, without being quick.

Now that might sound stupid, but I’ve seen plenty of players over here that are lightning fast, but think about as quickly as a snail.

“For example, I worked with Luis Figo for four years and, over 40 metres, you or I could beat him. But you try and beat him over five or ten metres with the ball. He’d throw one shape and we’d all be on our backsides. Deco was the same.

That’s the type of player we don’t produce.

“(Bastian) Schweinsteiger is not fast, but bloody hell is he quick. He can beat four people in the space of five metres.

That’s more important than being able to run 40 metres like a whippet. You see the likes of (Theo) Walcott and (Aaron) Lennon and they’ll outrun anyone. But then you say, ‘Well show me the final product’. It’s not there.

“We also get confused between strength and power.

You’ve got these guys walking around like nightclub bouncers, but then someone unbalances them with the ball and they get brushed over.

“(Matthew) Upson’s a great example against (Miroslav) Klose. Klose’s got nothing on him, but in a match situation, he’s much more powerful. You saw that (in Germany’s 4-1 win over England) when he brushed him aside for the first goal. That’s what people don’t understand. These guys are functionally strong. There’s a difference.”

To counter that difference, Spry embraces a range of techniques and methods that would be shunned by a majority of English coaches.

Many of his teachings draw extensively from the worlds of martial arts and dance, spheres that demand a mastery of movement and balance that Spry feels is more relevant to football than raw pace and power.

The 59-year-old has spent many years studying ‘Capoeira’, a uniquely Brazilian blend of fighting and dance that places a heavy emphasis on surprise and improvisation, traits that are hugely influential in the South American style of play.

“As a player in England, I’m taught that for me to beat you, I have to run past you,” said Spry. “In Portugal or Brazil, for me to beat you, I have to throw a shape to get you off balance before I try to move past you.

“That’s what Capoeira is. I throw a primary move to see what your reaction is, then I move in the opposite direction to get past you when you’re off balance. That’s the way these people play and think.

“The Brazilians have Capoeira, the Argentinians have a similar fighting style and so do the Portuguese. It’s all influences that are based around rhythm.

“One of the big things I do is to get the players training to music. And I don’t mean as a background noise like at the dentist.

“We use specific beats per minute to make the players’ heart rate work at a specific speed and teach them about the importance of movement and balance. It’s like a boxer dancing in the ring. That’s the way the Brazilians play football.”

They also provide a rounded footballing education right up to first-team level, ensuring that everyone – attacker, midfielder, defender – is equally comfortable on the ball. The idea of a fixed playing position is not introduced until a player is in his late teenage years, something that stands in complete contrast to the situation at most English clubs. And whereas English Academies tend to judge a young player by his size, overseas clubs are nowhere near as proscriptive.

“If you’re an 11-year-old player in this country and you’re five foot nine, and you’re playing against players that are five foot four, there’s only three positions where you’ll be picked to play – goalkeeper, centre-half or centre-forward. Or if you’re five foot three, you’re either a tricky wide-midfield player or you’re a winger.

“Now that doesn’t happen in Portugal, it doesn’t happen in Spain, it doesn’t happen in Argentina and it doesn’t happen in Brazil. They will pick a player on his ability.

“Take Franco Baresi. He was one of the best central defenders in history and he was five foot nine. If he had been born in England, he would have had no chance of making it in that position.

“Here’s another example. I worked with a young lad at a Premier League club in the Midlands and he was extraordinary. But one day, he got called in with his dad and the club said they would have to release him because, even though he was the most talented player at the club, he was too small.

“A few months later, he was on holiday in Barcelona, playing with a few Spanish kids on the beach, and he was spotted by someone who had done some scouting for Real Madrid.

“He was invited to Real Madrid for a couple of days, and that kid now plays for Real Madrid in the Under-17s.

He is looked upon as one of the shining lights for the future of that club.

“I spoke to Mourinho when he got the Real Madrid job and told him to look out for him, and he phoned me a couple of weeks ago and said, ‘My God.

This guy’s frightening. He’s better than Deco was at that age’. If Mourinho’s saying that, he can’t be that bad can he?”

He was, however, judged to be too small to survive in England, a sentiment that no doubt arose in part from the English obsession with playing competitive fixtures from a very young age.

“There’s no competitive football in Portugal until you’re 16 years old,” said Spry.

“There’s no Championships or league tables. There’s no ‘Let’s put all the big lads in today because we want to win the league’.

“You’ll hear a lot about English teams doing well at Under-15s or Under-17s.

Portuguese and Spanish teams couldn’t care less about Under-17s football. All they think about is developing players for the first team.

“They don’t look at the end of the season and say, ‘Oh, haven’t our Under-14 side won a lot of medals’. They look at how to develop youngsters into players. Ajax are the same. They don’t play competitive games and look how many of their players were involved in the World Cup final.”

A World Cup final, lest we forget, in which England were not involved.

If you’re in any way involved in football I’m sure you can empathise with some of the views that Spry has. You’ll know someone who was released for being too small, you’ll probably agree that there’s too much focus on winning & competitive games within youth football, you’ll realise what he’s saying when he talks about players like Figo & Deco and you probably also struggled to imagine football to music [I know I did!].

I’ve read this article about three or four times now, and it triggers different emotions as I read it. Frustration – at the fact we seem to be behind other countries in developing players, intrigue – at the way Spry delivers his training and determination – to get involved, to learn and to help.

I’m immersing myself in coaching information at the moment and the more I read the more I start to understand the enormous amount of depth there is to being a coach, you simply will never stop learning & improving. It’s exciting, if not a little daunting…


About Simon
Grassroots Football Coach

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