“I like to win, but above all, I want to teach universal values. Giving everything while competing with dignity is victory” – Pep Guardiola
As coaches, we learn from those we work with over the years and from our experiences as we find our own way. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great coaches and mentors who have inspired and taught me along the way, but in hindsight, it was my a few days in Lancashire before I had even though about being a coach, that ended up having a profound effect on my coaching methods and philosophies thirty years later.
Remember the scene in the movie “Bull Durham” where Kevin Costner’s character, a veteran pitcher toiling in the minor leagues, tells the younger players about the one time he made it to the Major League? “I was in the show for 21 days once – the 21 greatest days of my life”. I had a less than mediocre playing career so after a few adult beverages the best I can do is, once again, bore my fellow coaches to tears with the story of how I got to experience the life of a football apprentice at Blackpool FC and Bolton Wanderers for a week. (I know, technically Bolton is not in Lancashire anymore).
I don’t want to make this a self-indulgent trip down memory lane (OK, maybe just a little, it is after all my blog). So if this entry is a little long, even by my standards, just scroll down to the bottom to read the conclusion by clicking here.
I hear you’re short a goalkeeper?
Like many goalkeepers, I came to the position late. For most of my “career” I was a forward, playing for Xerxes Rotterdam, at the time appearing in the Dutch First Division-Sunday Amateurs and the 1979/80 Dutch Amateur Champion. The thought of playing goalkeeper had never crossed my mind until two teachers at my high school decided to put a school team together with the sole purpose of going to England during Easter break to play against the youth teams of some lower level professional and semi-professional teams and to attend as many matches as possible.
For a soccer-mad fifteen year old it was a no-brainer. I had to be on that team. But try-outs were reminiscent of the scene in the Vinnie Jones version of the “Mean Machine”: The majority of the players trying out were strikers, most of them upperclassmen, including two who also played at Xerxes. Things were looking grim, until I realized that there was only one goalkeeper trying out. I had heard the teachers talk about wanting to take two goalkeepers on the trip. Although not the best at math, even I could solve this equation: I was trying out as a goalkeeper. And made the team. Now all I had to do was convince my mom to let me go on the trip, and talk her into getting me some goalie gloves.
Off to England
I managed to accomplish both those objectives. A few months later in early 1983, with my shiny new Uhlsports in my kitbag, we went on the trip, led by our coaches, math teacher Bart Hillebrand , PE teacher Wijbrandt Rus and Administrator Aad Bremer. The three of them, and 18 of us players jumped in the rented minibuses and took the ferry over to England. Final Destination: the Lytham-St. Anne’s YMCA where we were allowed to put our sleeping bags on the floor in some unused rooms for the week.
During my high school years, we went on this trip three times and I don’t recall us winning a single match. (I think we tied Morecambe once) Our first game ever was against Blackpool where Sam Ellis was the coach at the time. Having ended his playing career a few years earlier, he was in his first season as the Manager. He somehow knew our teachers and helped us set up some of our other matches. We lost 7-0 with me in goal. The next game we lost to Blackburn Rovers, 16-0 with a little winger named Francis Carr tormenting us, until he was substituted with Rovers up 12-0. I was grateful to be on the bench and felt bad for the other goalie, who actually played quite well. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt so, because after the game one of the Blackburn coaches came over and gave him a green Rovers goalie jersey. I recall wondering where between 7 and 16 the cut-off for a consolation shirt was.
We went to watch games at Bloomfield Road, Blackburn as well as Burnley, and played another two or three games that we lost, albeit by more respectable score lines. On the way back to Holland we stopped to play one last game, against Chesterfield. They let us play in the stadium under the lights, which was of course a huge thrill. All sixteen of our players got a run in, and I came out halfway through the second half. (I think we were down 3-1, and ended up losing 4-2). Pretty muddy, I went straight to the locker room to make good use of the best part of an English stadium locker room: the huge communal bath tub with enough room for the whole team. Filled it up and got in a nice hot bath with two or three other players who had also been substituted. About 5 minutes before full-time, the equipment manager walked into the dressing room to bring in the customary pot of tea when he saw us in the bath: “Did you lot fill that thing up? We only have enough hot water to do that once”. Oops. The rest of the team had to make do with cold showers. We might not have been the most popular guys on the team bus that day, but we were the best smelling ones.
Welcome to Blackpool.
After we came home, the team didn’t play much, just an occasional friendly against club competition since Rotterdam didn’t have any type of high school competition. The 83/84 school year started and we practiced every now and then in preparation for our trip that Easter break. One day in late September, out of the blue, Bart Hillebrand asked me if I was interested in going back to Blackpool during fall break and spend some time training with them and Bolton (the Seasiders were in the Fourth Division then and the Wanderers had just been relegated to the Third Division). Of course, I did! I was so excited it never occurred to me to ask what I had done to earn this privilege. My parents were not convinced at first but my solemn vow to never, ever ask for anything, ever again as long as I lived, won them over.
So Bart, Aad and I went back to Blackpool, where we were able to crash at the Lytham YMCA again. Monday morning was the big day: report to the Blackpool training facility at 0900AM. The facility was on the southside of town next to a residential area and consisted of two practice fields and a small building containing two dressing rooms, a shower, a kit room and the gaffer’s office. Sam Ellis was in his second year in charge. His office door had that rough semi-opaque glass all office doors had in those years with his name stuck on it in adhesive black plastic letters. The name of one of his predecessors was still faintly outlined in the glass: “Alan Ball”.
I had met Sam during our visit the previous spring and he introduced me to some of the real apprentices and the rest of the team. I don’t recall names but there was one red-haired kid who, very surprisingly, went by the nickname of “Ginger”. Sam told me that I would be the only goalkeeper at practice since both first team goalkeepers were injured. The next day there was an away game at Wrexham, and the boys needed some finishing practice so it would be a busy day for me. For a brief, terrifying moment I thought that he was thinking of putting me in goal the next day but thankfully Sam kept me from wetting myself in front of the team by explaining that the replacement goalkeeper they signed would not get to Blackpool until that evening.
Training started with a few laps around the pitch, and then it was off with the assistant coach for some basic goalie drills. Right after that, I got to show off what little skills I had in the finishing exercise. The team came off two straight two losses without scoring a goal and it was obvious Sam had told them that this had to change. The pace and intensity with which the drill was executed showed that the lads got the message, and they were charging the goal and firing like the 3rd Infantry Division storming Sword Beach on D-day, with me playing the role of an overwhelmed German private. These guys put more pace on the ball than I’d ever seen and the speed of the drill was amazing. The competitiveness among the players was pretty intense as well, and I remember wondering what the word “wanker” meant, since it was used whether I made a save or let in a goal. I came to the conclusion that it had to be a term of endearment
Somehow I managed to survive the drill with a tiny sliver of confidence left. After that, it was decided that what we needed was a nice run. I was in good shape and always ran so I didn’t think it would be a problem. The training facility was near the famous golf course and across from the dunes so off we went at a pretty nice pace. Slowed a little bit when we hit the sand but the real surprise came on the other side of the dunes: the October wind coming off the Irish Sea straight in our face. The practice session had taken more out of me than I realized and pretty soon I was falling behind, with the team out of sight. Thankfully, the trail was pretty easy to follow and I found my way back. The team was sitting there, enjoying a cup of tea. I joined them but just as I reached for my cuppa, Sam came in and stated “Last guy is here, break is over”. Welcome to Blackpool. Even today, an aerial shot of the dunes around the Lytham-St.Anne’s golfcourse during television coverage of the British Open is enough to cause me to curl into the fetal position in the corner of the room and suck my thumb.
After the initial shock had worn off, I was able to more or less hang-on in subsequent days and even have a few decent saves in scrimmages. In the afternoons, I joined the other apprentices in shining the senior players’ boots, cleaning the showers, sweeping the dressing rooms, etc. In the evenings Aad, Bart and I went to matches, watching Liverpool play Athletic Bilbao in the Europa Cup One and attending a mid-week fixture at Tranmere Rovers.
Is that a dog track around the practice field?
Thursday was another big day. Off to Bolton for a day of training with the Third Division Wanderers! My coaches had already informed me that the team actually had a dedicated goalkeeper coach. We got to Burnden Park and I was still a little surprised that they were actually expecting us. The receptionist told me to go to the second area in the dressing room and use kit number 33. The fact that they had two(!) sections in a dressing room and were using numbers higher than 22 blew me away. At my club team we were given our jerseys for matches, but here they gave you the whole kit, including underwear, for practice! So this is how the big boys do it!
It was time to meet my boss for the day. Charlie. I could say his last name was Mc-something but the sad truth us that I never got his last name since my high school English had a hard time understanding some of his brogue. Charlie was a Scottish keeper who had spent time playing in Asia and, if I understood it correctly, made an appearance for Hong Kong. To a sixteen year old everybody over 21 looks ancient, but he must have been in his late thirties, early forties at the time. ( Edit 04/08/2016: While reading Sam Allardyce’s autobiography “Big Sam”, I found out that Charlie’s last name was Wright, and he had quite the career at Charlton Athletic. Only took me 34 years to find that out) He introduced himself, Aad and Bart joined us and we talked about football and goalkeeping as we walked to the training field, which was down the way a bit, in the middle of a dog track. An active dog track, as I was to soon find out.
There were three other keepers, the two Bolton first team players and a kid a year or two older than me who said he was the fourth or fifth choice at Southampton and was trying to get a transfer in search of playing time. We did a couple of general ball handling drills and Charlie took me aside a few times to make some coaching points.
Having never had any formal training, I had decent basic technique but some of the finer points of the craft were foreign to me, in particular how to best protect yourself when coming of your line or going for crosses. Charlie taught me how to do that, pressing the point that keepers have to be aggressive and fearless. I had been told that before, but Charlie punctuated it by sliding out his fake two front teeth with his tongue. “Made the save, though” he said grinning with his teeth missing which reminded me of Joe Jordan.
Charlie had his own unique way of making you deal with pressure. When we were starting a finishing drill, he explained that for every goal I gave up I owed him a pound, for every save I made he owed me 10 pence. Only shots on target counted. After three full days at Blackpool I was finally getting used to the pace of play so I was pretty happy with myself that I only ended up owing him less than three pounds.
Practice was about two hours, after which Charlie asked if I wanted to work on something in particular. Despite being a good field player, I had a hard time with goalkicks and punts, which tended to veer to the side so I asked him for help on that. We went over some of the basics and kicked some balls into the net. It seemed like I was trying to overpower the kick in an attempt to get distance leading to slicing or shanking, so we went about fixing that. When it seemed like I was making some progress, Charlie decided to up the stakes by having me kick and punt downfield, gently reminding me that we were surrounded by a dog track where there were races going on. People were betting on those races. “Punters won’t take kindly to a ball bouncing in front of the dogs during a race” he said “and you have to walk past them on the way back to the locker room.” It did the trick, by concentrating on direction rather than power, my kicks went both straighter AND farther. Lesson learned. No mad punters waiting for me at the gate. I was so relieved that I never asked Bart and Aad if they put any money on the dogs.
Friday was the last day at Blackpool for a light practice since there was a match the next day. We watched the team beat Chesterfield on Saturday and. after saying our goodbyes to Sam and my “teammates” we travelled back to Holland on Sunday.
That Easter we travelled back and played Blackpool again; and lost again, (5-3 I think, so at least there was progress) Talked to Sam and the coaches while there. I saw Charlie that spring as well. We went to watch a game at Bolton and the club was kind enough to allow all of us access to the clubroom after the match. I talked to Charlie about goalkeeping and my progress for about an hour before we left. Charlie was a teacher, and I left the stadium with a headful of tips, pointers and things to think about. The last I saw of him was when we were walking to the team buses and he drove by in his large golden-brown Mercedes (it was the 80s!) and waved.
I graduated high school in 1986 and went to the US a few years later. With no internet, very limited media coverage, and a career to pursue, I drifted away from football until I started playing again in 1997. It was when I started coaching a year later that I realized how important these men, and the experiences they had given me, and what they would lead to later in life.
So what did you learn?
I’m not going to pretend that I learned everything I needed to know in that one week. But that week watching Sam and Charlie planted a seed, and provided me with a baseline. Later on, when I started coaching myself, I realized that the good coaches I worked with had a lot of things in common, with each other as well as with Sam and Charlie. As different as their personalities, training methods and playing philosophies might have been, there were three things they all seemed to have in common.
1. You need to have a clear vision.
One thing I did learn immediately. You have to have a clear vision of how the game should be played. Just like Dennis Bergkamp would later say that “there has to be a thought behind every ball”, Charlie had taught me that there had to be a thought, a philosophy behind a keeper’s actions. Everything you did had to have a purpose. From ruling the box, to organizing your defense, to using the right technique not just to protect yourself, but to send a message to the world: “This is my penalty area. I own it. Enter at your own risk”. When you coach a team, you need that same clear vision. People might not agree with your philosophy, in fact there are going to be plenty of people who disagree with it, but you still need to have a clear idea on what you want to accomplish and how you are going to go about doing that (paging Jose Mourinho!). If you can’t sum up your philosophy in a few short sentences, it’s no good.
2. You have to be yourself.
You have to be able to get your players to believe in your vision. Charisma might help with that but what you really need is the ability to effectively communicate with your players in order to impart the knowledge they need to understand your philosophy, which allows them to accept and realize your vision. You can’t do that if you’re pretending to be somebody else. Players, and young players in particular, pick up on that. Your delivery has to fit your personality. There is a reason you never hear about Arsene Wenger’s “hairdryer” treatments.
3. It’s not about you, it’s about your players.
You can’t be a (volunteer) youth Goalkeeper coach for the money (the pay is awful, but at least the hours are terrible) or the fame (it is rumored that at least half the GK coaches in the world are actually in the FBI witness protection program). The coach’s responsibility is to make the kid that shows up for practice a better keeper. You don’t have to make him a champion. You just have to make him the best goalkeeper he can be. It’s impossible to be an effective youth coach, if you put your own interests first. You have to teach because you love the game.
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” – Albert Schweitzer
I went to Lancashire in 1983. I was a decent keeper but I wasn’t that good. At the time, Third and Fourth Division teams didn’t sign foreign adult players, let alone apprentices. Sam and Charlie didn’t have any reason to allow some pimply skinny Dutch youth player to practice with their squads. There were no agents shopping marginally talented kids around all over Europe. Bart, Aad and Wijbrand didn’t spend their vacation driving a bunch of unruly teenagers around England because they were hoping to make a quick guilder. They did it because they loved the game and wanted to share it with the next generation. That is what good coaches do. These five were the first to show that to me, but since then I have come to the realization that it is a trait that all good youth coaches share. You can’t be a good, effective youth coach unless you love the game.
And maybe that was the biggest lesson of all.