Always a part of us

It was an autumn Wednesday in the early 1970s.

Being a Holiday of Obligation, when Catholics were expected to attend Mass, I had made a quick exit from my midday lecture at the university along in George Square and headed for the upstairs chapel at St Francis in Lothian St, known to Southsiders as “The Friary”.

Honesty demands that I don’t claim any particular feelings of piety. It was a time when we “did our religious duty” without much reflection, and the major thoughts in my mind during the service concerned Hibs European tie that night at Easter Rd. The Tornadoes were flying and we expected to win every European tie we played.

As I queued to take communion, I hoped, rather superstitiously, that my pious keeping of the religious rules would play well with the Big Man upstairs when it came to getting a result later that day.

Then, looking up, I noticed something very familiar about the two men in front of me as we approached the altar. Unbelievably, it was Pat Stanton and Jimmy O’Rourke. Here they were, my two heroes, just hours away from a major European tie, just next to me in church. Surely that guaranteed a victory! (It did!)

Footballers were less high profile in those days – even the legends of Turnbull’s Tornadoes. If you knew the family or stayed near to them, you would see them around, otherwise their life off the pitch was not visible – rather like teachers, who, for all we knew, could have been kept in the classroom cupboard overnight – so to see the guys at church was a surprise.

I went for some lunch, still feeling excited about seeing them, and reflected on how we come to support a football team and what it means to us and our sense of self.

My family had been involved with the Hibs since arriving from Ireland in the 1890s, we ran grocery stores in the Southside, my uncle James played for the team briefly in the 1920s, and though we moved down to England after my father’s death, there was never any doubt that I was a Hibee, and my return to Edinburgh, to go to university, gave me the opportunity to jump in fully, with both feet, to that particular agony which is Hibernian supporting.

But seeing Pat and Jimmy that lunchtime became a kind of consolidation of my connection to the club.

We follow football clubs for many varying and personal reasons. Sometimes it is family history, or maybe geography, or a friend’s choice, or perhaps the happenstance of the first game attended, the colour of the kit, or a perplexing name. It may be as deep as a combination of all these reasons, or as superficial as a pin stuck in a list. At the end of the day, the reasons carry little weight compared to the passion shown in following “the lads”.

I thought of all the connections reflected in that lunchtime event.

Like Pat and Jimmy, my dad and his brothers had attended Holy Cross Academy. Had we not moved to England, there was a good chance I  would have followed them there – and I ended up playing cricket for their FP team for over three decades. Having honed his talent on the East Meadows, where Hibs originated, and opposite our family’s grocery store, uncle James  was Holy Cross’s star player in his time, netting them victories in a number of cup finals.  After football, at Hibs and Ayr Utd, he became a Franciscan priest and spent some time at the Friary In Lothian St where I had just seen the Hibs players.

Holy Cross Academy, the Southside, The Friary, my dad and uncle – there was a swell of connection there which made Pat and Jimmy “familiar” to me, in every sense of the word.

I should point out that I have always been proud that Hibs embraces all its founding influences, without marketizing any one particular strand of our heritage – as is reflected in our badge – and it just so happened that these two had an overlap with my own  specific background. But I may have been a Reddings boy, proud of John Blackley, from Montrose and in awe of Gordon Smith, or a Dunfermline lad who idolised Alex Edwards. It is not the origins but the depth of connection we feel which makes our  support so special to each of us.

However, I should admit that when I recall the famous League Cup win over Celtic in 1972, and the goal contribution of Stanton and O’Rourke, I still have a tendency to think “Holy Cross Academy 2-1 Celtic”!!!

So Jimmy’s death today  feels like much more than the loss of a sporting legend. Speaking to Pat Stanton last week, he mentioned his old school pal  was unwell, and couldn’t help recalling the famous tale of Jimmy scanning the jailbirds on a prison bus seen by  the Hibs touring party  outside Fulsom Prison on a sixties American tour: “He said he was checking to see if there were any lads from Clerrie on board!”.

Jimmy’s pawky wit is well documented. My own favourite involved the time when he was coaching the Hibs youths alongside Jackie McNamara. Having locked up the stadium after Tuesday night training, they were headed along through Abbeyhill when Jimmy nudged Jackie: “Hey! Did you leave the lights on?” he asked, pointing down Easter Rd to where the glare of the floodlights lit up the night sky.

For those who missed the pleasure and excitement of seeing Jimmy play each week, I have been trying  to find words to describe his style of play. It’s not easy, because he was quite unique – in build, in style, in application – but, ultimately, I think his play matched his humour: it was impish! He would pop up everywhere, deceptively skilled for his build, strong as an ox, but capable of the most sublime touches. His goals were a joy – the explosions primed by the finely tuned Tornadoes mechanisms, and it was hard to tell who got most delight from them – Jimmy or the supporters.

That his special song was based on the theme to that most irrepressible of characters, Rupert the Bear, seems fitting, and it was true – everyone did know his name.

And, here’s a thing. For some reason, it was almost impossible to refer to Jimmy without using an Edinburgh accent. My auntie Nellie, deeply rooted in the Southside, would always point out to me that, for all my mongrel English/Scots accent, I always pronounced his name as  “Jimmehoroork”. He was so much part of Clermiston and our city that anything else would have sounded odd – despite  always being  `James’ to his family.

I am writing this about half a mile down the hill from Clermiston on a dreich, grey, wet and miserable day, and sad as I am at the death of Jimmy, an ultimate relief though it may have been, neither the weather nor the sense of loss can quite extinguish the pure joy that this bouncing dynamo of a footballer brought to the Hibernian support.

He was very special man and a very special footballer. He was all we would want an Hibernian Hero to be.

Driving down Ferry Rd, past the site of Holy Cross Academy, I often think of all the connections, and I will always think of Jimmy as I go past – and how, in so many games for the Hibs, he reflected his old school’s motto: “Spes Unica” – “Our Only Hope”.        

Thank you, Jimmehoroork.

Some boy, Bingham

The tributes to football manager Billy  Bingham, who has died at the age of 90, quite rightly highlight his great success as Northern Ireland manager, and mention his time at Everton, but, to me, his place in the pantheon of great managers is a far more personal matter.

Statistics will tell you that his most successful stint as coach, with a 43% win rate,  was in his first appointment, at Southport FC in the  old fourth and then third divisions.

However, as any true football follower would affirm, statistics won’t give you even half the story.

His time at Southport – from 1965-67 coincided with my moving from the age of 13 to 15 – perhaps the most formative years in anyone’s life, and the Southport team he forged  in that time –  Bingham’s Boys – remain heroes to me till this day almost sixty years later.

As a coach, he was  innovative and  ahead of his  time. Arriving at Haig Avenue in his first coaching appointment, at the young age of  35, he found a club which, if not exactly moribund, was fast going nowhere. He understood the need for impact, not only on the field and training pitch but also around a town which had long been famous for its indifference to football.

By the time he moved on, two years later, Southport had reached the last sixteen of the Cup and been promoted for the first time in their history, and were regarded as one of the fittest squads in the entire football league.  They had garnered more national headlines that in any previous era.

The point about Bingham’s flair for publicity was that all of his “stunts” had a positive impact on the club’s playing record.

Poor atmosphere in the  ground? How about flagpoles flying international flags along the open end of the ground – as seen contemporaneously at Fulham’s Craven Cottage? Along with the rocketing playing standard, this innovation improved the matchday experience.

Looking for coverage, and increased attendance, before a crucial cup tie? Here’s a picture of burly forward, Eric Redrobe in ballet tights. The press got their angle, but players were protected from cold weather muscle and sinew  injuries long before such an approach became general.

A must win game against high flying fellow promotion hopefuls,  derby neighbours, Stockport County? Here’s the players running out with strange numbers on their shirts – 11 for the right back, 8 for the centre half, 3 for the centre forward and so on. Before County’s man marking  players had worked out what was happening, Port were well on their way to a rousing 4-0 victory.

There was some comment that Bingham’s side was rather dour and defensive, and notable cup victories away at second division Ipswich and at Stockport might confirm that thought. However, he was also flexible as a manager and well able to switch systems to match the opposition or to surprise them with attacking intent. He was adept at changing players’ positions if he felt they had the skills to perform better elsewhere, and his organisation was such that, in the Stockport cup game, Les Barratt, signed hours before kick off and unknown to the support, was able to slot perfectly in to the system and even score the decisive goal.

Most of all, his side had resilience – frequently shown on the pitch, and even more so after the devastating Boxing Day fire in 1966, which destroyed the main stand  and all the club’s infrastructure, but couldn’t derail their run to promotion.

In two short years Bingham put Southport on the map. In the town’s newsagents on Monday mornings, little old ladies who had previously not known the town had a football team, could be heard asking “How did the lads get on?”

It was a remarkable impact, which left Bingham, in Southport’s terms, as associated with the club as Busby with United, Shankly with Liverpool, Nicholson with Spurs and Stein with Celtic. He was, in short, a force of nature.

There is little doubt that without the exploits of the Bingham Boys, Southport FC may well have fallen into terminal decline, or that, at the very least, their exit from the Football League could well have happened years before that eventuality in 1978.

For those of us who were there to witness those remarkable times, Billy Bingham remains an iconic figure, whom we were privileged to witness at the start of an impressive managerial career. His World Cup exploits may get the headlines, but, arguably, what he achieved on the West Lancashire coast, with another team not accustomed to glory,  was just as impressive.

These days, “influencers” are to be found and feted on social media, but, for this writer, as a teenager, the greatest influencer was Billy Bingham.

Which is why anyone caring to look at the old guy on an Edinburgh station last Friday, staring intently at the message on his phone, may have noticed a couple of tears running down his cheeks.

Thank you, Billy.

Thank you for the Bingham Boys.

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

November 16th 2013 Haig Avenue

In more than five decades of watching live football, there have been many players I have admired, and some who I have greatly respected. I have been privileged to watch  players such as Pele, Garrincha, Eusebio, Cruyff, Charlton, Best, and Dalgleish and, understandably, I have marvelled at their skills and abilities.

However, there are only a handful for whom I have developed an outright affection, call it “a one sided sporting bromance”, if you like, and one of those was Alex Russell, of Southport FC, who has died aged 78.

A lot of it is to do with timing, of course. Alex played his first game for Southport about two weeks before I first started watching them in November 1963. The heroes you adopt when you are  eleven year old tend to stay with you, and, for me, watching Southport and Alex Russell in the 1960s were synonymous.

I heard of his death during a tour of the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney – an ironic coincidence, as, when he arrived at Haig Avenue he was quickly nicknamed “Ringo” Russell. At the height of the Beatles’ surge, comparisons were everywhere, and a prominent nose and a Beatle fringe was enough to lead  to the inevitable conclusion, though it didn’t really stick.

Everyone realised when he arrived that he was a cut above most of our players at the time, and it was our pleasure and privilege that, apart from spells at Blackburn, Tranmere and Los Angeles Aztecs, he spent the bulk of his career with the Sandgrounders, amassing  nearly 400 appearances, over 75 goals and God knows how many assists. He played in the team that reached the last sixteen of the FA Cup in 1966, the promotion winning team the following year, and scored the 93rd minute free kick against Hartlepool to give Southport the Fourth Division title in 1973. In the Port’s  greatest moments, he was there.

I always wondered if his allegiance to Southport commenced when his signing for the Port gave him the opportunity to complete his printers apprenticeship while playing first team football – an opportunity perhaps not so available in the Everton set up which he left to join up at Haig Avenue.

But why “affection”, as well as admiration for this talented player? Along with team  mates Redrobe, Spence, Peat and Alty, he generated something extra in our reactions. You felt he cared as much as the support, and his demeanour was everything you would want in a hero.

He never needed to show off – his talent such was that he could dominate the opposition, make our own side tick, control the play, and score goals of all types without needing to grandstand.  He ran the midfield against Cardiff City in the famous fourth round cup victory, he showed steel and determination as we headed towards the fourth division title, he linked the resolution of our defence to the flair of our attackers. The evidence of his talent was in its effect, and when Russell played on top of his form, the team inevitably got a result. When the Scarisbrick End sang his name, there would be a brief acknowledgement, but he never felt the need to milk it. It was not in his character on or off the field.

If he was all that an eleven year old could want in a modest hero, that feeling never diminished over time.

He was regularly to be seen at Haig Avenue in recent years, just a face in the crowd to some, a legend to others. I was delighted to meet him when I went to watch the team on the fiftieth anniversary of my first game at the ground. True to form, he looked a little overwhelmed to be the object of such affection from a retired gentleman referring to playing exploits of fifty years before, but predictably he took my gratitude and admiration in good part  as we reminisced.  It was wonderful to be able to thank him, to reasssure him that his legend certainly lived on in my heart and in our house, and particularly good to be able to introduce my son. In such moments immortality beckons!

Thoughts and thanks go to his family and former team mates for sharing this great man with the Southport football supporting public. If we will miss him, how much bigger must be your loss. I have never forgotten him and never will. He gave us so much joy and success.

Now I am involved in football  and  attend matches every week I still appreciate smooth and visionary midfield play. And, whenever  I watch a cute reverse pass, a ball winning tackle, or a defence splitting ball to the wing, no matter who the player might be, a part of my heart is singing the old chant from the Scarisbrick End.

“Alex Russell. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

A Good Heart

Derry punk band, The Undertones, provided the anthemic “Teenage Kicks” as a run out tune for Hibs’ “Golden Generation” under Tony Mowbray, but a number one single, by their erstwhile front man, Feargal Sharkey, provides an even better fit for an examination of the Academy of today.

“A Good Heart”, the song’s title,  is a phrase which encapsulates the needs of a modern day football academy – and it works on different levels.

Locationwise, an academy needs to be the good heart of a club’s philosophy: especially its approaches to talent identification, development and support.

A good heart will be as strong as possible to support the physical and mental demands placed on an elite sportsperson.

As the supposed root of human emotion, the good heart is crucial in providing the passion and engagement with the club’s history, community, culture, style, and support, as well as that love of football which drives on young academy players towards the professional game

And a good heart is necessary to help develop and shape good people in all areas of the club’s operation – because good people bring trust, honesty, and inspiration, and serve as persuasive role models.

If young players are in good heart – in a comfortable place in themselves, then they are more open to coaching and development, better able to progress – physically, mentally and technically, and better fitted to displaying confidence as individuals in meeting the many challenges they will face,  allied to having the necessary team awareness as part of a squad.

All progress needs a strong jumping off point, and being in good heart can provide that.

All fine words – but how do they translate into practice?

Nobody expects, realistically, to turn out a first team comprising only Academy players – that’s neither feasible nor desirable. However, a senior squad with a core of Academy graduates – at Hibs, think Stevenson, Hanlon,  Porteous – is well placed to embody the club’s philosophy and ethos – explaining the club to newcomers and youngsters alike, carrying the onfield torch for past heroes and current staff, providing mentoring and role modelling to the current academy aspirants.

Just as the central spine of a team is crucial to onfield success, so an Academy-nurtured understanding of what the club is about contributes crucially to the team’s overall spirit and resilience.

Physically, we know the heart is the muscle that needs to be strong and well prepared to bear the load of effort and athleticism, and it needs to be well monitored and cared for by a staff with the fitness and effectiveness of the players at the forefront of their focus. A good heart comes from careful and informed treatment and expertly managed exercise, where the needs of the individual are paramount in shaping the overall team.

But while the heart’s role in physical strength is based on science, our human belief in the heart as the metaphorical seat of our emotions has also a role to play in the football academy.

Young footballers are not machines – though they may be monitored and checked on a daily basis. They cope with all the normal challenges of adolescence in addition to the pressures of trying to make it as elite sportsmen. For this reason, they need to be surrounded by good hearted staff who care for them as people, as much as seeing them as talent to be further developed. Any adult who works  with young people has to be aware that they have a duty of care – whether legally  or morally imposed.

There are many who would suggest that football and winning matches must trump over all in an Academy, and that the high stakes being played for in the top level  game these days mean that the pressure is on everyone involved to “deliver”.

Luckily more are now realising the value of emotional intelligence, empathy, and  positive interaction. This means that the recruitment of Academy staff needs to go  far beyond technical or even coaching expertise. We all know WHAT we want to achieve at an Academy, but successful staff also focus  on HOW it is achieved.

Academy staff are not just teaching skills or fitness or nutrition or game awareness, they are working with young people at the most formative stage of their lives, young people who may be footballers for ten or fifteen years, but who will also have lives to lead beyond that, and alongside that.  Their development has to be personal as well as professional, emotional as well as technical. Good hearted people, folk who genuinely care about their players, are best placed to provide this kind of positive development. They need to do more than pass on skills, they need to give of themselves.

The players need to feel that care, need to trust the staff and feel valued by them – as individuals, not just as positions in a team plan. The good news is that players who are helped into this “good place” by staff, and who feel confident in themselves as people, are best positioned to make good progress on the field, as well as off it. They are better able to take on board coaching and other information, more prepared to take the risks and meet the challenges which will drive their development to full potential.

If they can approach the training centre or game day in good heart, they will have fewer distractions, a calmer approach, and the best chance of performing to their top ability – which fulfills the Academy aim.

Progress needs a firm jumping off point, just as a good heartbeat augurs well for general fitness and mental alertness. For this reason, young players need to be offered a vision – not just in a philosophical sense, but in a practical sense also, answering their concerns about progress. What is the route they will take? What role models can they follow? Is there a loan plan for them? How will they be monitored and supported? Are there dual career opportunities – in trade apprenticeships, college or degree courses, coaching and  sports science qualifications. What role is there for parents and family? The Academy carries a precious cargo and needs to be fit for purpose, and the road ahead needs to be well signposted.

And at the root of all of this is the need for a good heart – in the club and in the Academy.

Because an Academy is not just about football, it is about people.

People with good hearts.

Strong Children v Broken Men

Dani Garavelli’s excellent Guardian/Nutmeg   piece, on the strange 2020 introduction to the game for young professional footballers gave me pause for reflection.

She points out that the normal expectations for the transition from school pupil to professional sportsman have been met with difficulty, if at all. The steady, confidence building routines of training centre timetables, game preparation, playing matches, and debriefing, have all been disrupted, to a greater or lesser extent.

Even youngsters graduating to first team substitutes’ bench, or appearances for the team itself, have done so in the strange atmosphere of empty stadia, with no crowd noise to pump the adrenaline or drown out the nerves.

For those charged with guiding young players’ development, familiar approaches have not always been possible. Social distancing can lead to emotional distancing. The instinct for how comfortably a player is adapting to his new environment can be dulled, the opportunities for one to one support are lessened.

My own role as Education and Welfare Officer for the Hibernian Development Squad has always centred on giving young players a sense of perspective. In signing their first contract, they are not becoming professional footballers as much as being given the opportunity to carve out such a career for themselves.

We know that not all Development Squad players will make the first team – but many, should they wish it, will go on to have the possibility of a career in football – full time or part time, at various levels.

At the same time, as well as adapting to full time employment, in a pressured environment, with constant monitoring and competition, they are, like all 16-21 year olds, negotiating the often tricky emotional path from teenager to young adult. If football is all they have in their lives, they are putting themselves under enormous additional pressure.

As a teacher, my role is not concerned with football’s technical skills, but rather supporting the young players into a place where they can better access those skills by seeing their football as part of their wider life. In this way, they can  appreciate that  working on their general emotional intelligence, their life choices, and their own mental wellbeing, as it is for anyone of their age, provides the best foundation for the development of their football abilities, as well as their social and life skills.

A young person who, for whatever reason,  is struggling psychologically, will find it difficult to focus on developing new skills or honing existing talent, or even taking on board new instructions and information. At a transitional stage in their life, they need to have a firm perspective on what is important and how they can best manage the changes they are experiencing.

We have heard far too many footballers, some of huge talent, describing their personal decline by saying that they only feel ‘comfortable’, or ‘happy’, or ‘themselves’,  when they are on the football pitch. The other parts of their lives, particularly in retirement, is challenging and meaningless. And it’s not just in Scotland, nor in football, that elite sports people find coping with life away from performance is a serious problem.

In general, those with a balanced view of the world around  them tend to  succeed and make better progress in each area of their life. So, even if we see a football club, in a ruthless sense, as being there merely to provide on field success, there is a reason to safeguard the mental wellbeing of their players – especially those starting out on their career

But for a young footballer, perhaps one whose every thought since he was a child has been focused on ‘making it’ in the professional game, how do you provide that balanced view – especially when a first contract has just been signed?

Coaches will keep young man grounded – and the best of them will get to know that each player  has an individual learning style and responds to varying training approaches. The best of young players will also learn from what they see around them – the deportment of   senior players and coaching staff, the values and expectations of the club, the level of openness and honesty that they encounter.

However, this may lie in the realms of hope and  fate, and surely young people deserve something more structured in their development.

The reality lies in the need for a football club and its academy to be a place of learning, and this in itself requires hard work and clear club guidance.

For perhaps a majority of youngsters, signing that first contract is as much an ‘escape’ from school as an entry to the world of football. The temptation is to wave goodbye to what they think of as a “world of learning”. Distracted by football, or with learning styles not fitted to the school system, they may have found their experiences as pupils were challenging or irrelevant, something to be put behind them.

In this area, perhaps the English system of football ‘scholars’ – sharing football and school time from early teens, faces more challenge than our approach in Scotland where we offer ‘continuing learning’ after school, while letting a youngster remain in their own school setting until sixteen or eighteen.

Part of the task of the club education department, then,  is to point out that “learning” never ends, that there are many different modes and stages of acquiring knowledge, and that a dislike for the school learning experience should not necessarily presage a rejection of future models and opportunities. In all walks of life, we need to keep learning if we are  to progress and develop, and this is surely particularly crucial to a teenager transitioning into young adult and professional footballer.

It is incumbent on the club to provide a continuing learning model which the players find accessible, relevant, and useful. Like all effective education, it needs to be based on a needs analysis: what do these young people need at this moment in time to support their successful development in all areas of their lives?

This is where club guidance and values are paramount. On starting to work at Hibernian, it was made very clear by Chief  Executive, Leeann Dempster, and Head of Football Operations, George Craig, that no player leaving the Hibs Development Squad – whether to first team, at Hibs or elsewhere, to part time or lower-league football, or, indeed,  if leaving the game altogether, should feel that their time  at the club had been ‘wasted’. They should have experienced a measurable progression and development in football and also in their maturing from adolescent to young man.

So the education programme is about what they need to know, and to reflect on how that knowledge can help them – as individuals and as members of  a  team.

Like all young footballers at elite academies they study an SFA/SPFL- backed  two year Modern Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence – which gives them the tools to self assess and monitor their progress. This continues structured learning and provides a recognised academic qualification. A First Aid in Sports Injuries qualification is also included.

Outside of that, the programme is a varied and as eclectic as the development needs of a group of young adult elite sportsmen. The development squad will receive an in-house Hibernian Academy Diploma after a series of lectures and workshops from staff members of all departments at the Training Centre. They will learn from Sports Science, Nutrition, Performance Analysis, Sports Psychology, Administration, Talent identification and Communications departments. Each department will explain what they do, why they do it, how they do it, how the youngsters will access their support, and how it will impact on the player’s development. This gives the young player an understanding of the club’s infrastructure and  expectations, and lets each department reflect on their own input and approaches – teaching as learning, you might say.

However, variety and perspective are central to this education model, so visiting speakers – from different sports and disciplines are a regular component of the programme. In the past five years, the development squad have benefited from visits and discussions with staff and players from Cricket Scotland and Scottish Table Tennis international teams, from Scotland Rugby captain Stuart Hogg, from Ireland’s GAA,  and  hands on support from Andy Murray, whose agency manages a number of our young players.  

As part of an ongoing commitment to reflecting on women’s sport, Maureen McGonigle, Shelley Kerr,  and Eilish McColgan have all discussed their experiences with the young players. In terms of men’s issues – a fairly potent area for development in football – successful workshops with Graham Goulden, formerly of the Violence Reduction Unit, have proved thought provoking, as have sessions on racism  and  addictive behaviours. “Managing finance” also opened more than a few eyes within the squad.

There were opportunities for more “off the wall” moments. Allied to nutrition support were cookery lessons; balance and spacial awareness were boosted by dance workshops; and a visit from a Naval Jet pilot training officer provided riveting insight into ‘Thinking Correctly Under Pressure”!

The most popular and perhaps most effective inputs in the programme, however, have been the “Question and Answer” sessions with senior staff and players. Part of an ongoing ‘mentoring’ programme, this has been an opportunity for young players to hear about the various paths followed by successful players or coaches in their careers, and, crucially, none of them have reported entirely smooth sailing. The chance to learn from the combined wisdom of characters such as Alan Stubbs, Neil Lennon, Grant Holt, Marvin Barclay, Daryl Horgan, Darren McGregor and Lewis Stevenson has been a relevant and powerful eye opener to many of our young players over the past few years – a crucial part of the continuing learning experience.

Crucially, in partnership with Napier University, we have now added to the learning experience by offering the opportunity at sixteen for young footballers to embark on a university course which will lead to a degree in Sport and Business. Clearly it is not for everyone, but it effectively removes the binary choice at school leaving age: ‘Sport or Degree?’ It is also invaluable to the process that the young players also see senior players and staff following degree courses as a parallel to their careers, rather than something to be accessed in retirement.

It is understandable that young and talented footballers may see signing their first professional contract as an end in itself – but, really, such a moment is only the opening of a door.

Rather than pushing them over then threshold, clubs have a responsibility to guide these players into the space beyond and equip them to deal with what they find there.

As Frederick Douglass memorably said: “It is easier to make strong children than to repair broken men.”

Shoogly legs would never do.

My brother-in-law  left Scotland in the eighties and has lived in Spain for the past decade, so perhaps his light heartedly deprecating remarks about Dundee, during an exchange of email banter  earlier this year, were not particularly surprising. What gave me more pause for thought was recognising the alacrity with which I then defended, and indeed praised, the City of Discovery.

My connections with Tayside are tangential to say the least.

My grandfather had a nephew, Michael, son of his brother, who was born at the turn of the twentieth century suffering from a serious form of epilepsy and other challenging disabilities. As was often  the norm in those days, he spent most of the eleven years of his short life in an institution, by all accounts well cared for in an unusually enlightened regime for the times. This was at Baldovan to the north of the city, now identified as Strathmartine Hospital. He is buried in the area.

In the mid twentieth century my uncle, James, who had played football for Hibs and Ayr Utd, became a Franciscan priest and spent much of his life at the Friary in Tullidelph. Even sixty years after his death there, I am told by Dundonians of his kindness to their parents when they were ill, his entertaining  talents on the piano, or his inspirational sermons. Visiting his grave in nearby Balgay Cemetery has fostered a feeling of connection to the area for me.

Then, in the 70s, at Edinburgh University, in an ambience not entirely unaffected by posers and the pretentious, I made friends with a number of students from Dundee, who stood out for their down to earth connectedness to their roots and origins, thus cementing my good feelings towards the city.

A couple of years ago a visit to the wonderful Verdant Works Museum left me in awe  – not just of its excellent exhibits, but of the rich working history of this city – not just the familiar “jam, jute and journalism”, but Timex and NCR, shipbuilding and all the other monuments to manufacturing and hard toil. The V and A and the Waterfront are a great advertisement for the ‘new City of Discovery’ –  but they are really only the icing on the Dundee cake.

In recent times, football trips to support Hibs in Dundee have been amongst the most anticipated of the season. I like how the clubs connect with their communities, I like the quirkiness of Tannadice and the Leitch cranked stand at Dens with the standing paddock in  front of it, I like the madness of two stadia in one street, and their surroundings of housing schemes and tenements. I love the potato fritters at Jamie’s Fry on Clepington Road.

All of which brings us, on a route far less direct than the Tay Bridge, to Jim McLean, who died yesterday.

This is not a sentimental take on the legendary manager. There is little point in diminishing his reality by ignoring his rough edges – and he had many, despite them being sometimes smoothed by the sandpaper of success. To ignore his awkwardness would be like refusing to acknowledge that the industry which made the city great, whilst bringing wealth to the owners, created wretched living conditions for many workers.

McLean was a joiner, and at heart remained so – a tradesman proud of his craft. He didn’t make superstars, he built teams. He was a man of exact angles, solid materials, and careful construction. In his world, you didn’t short change the punters, nor did you base your ambitions on vague visions or daft dreams, you worked them out carefully and accurately. In this way, despite being a Lanarkshire man, he was a fitting reflection of Dundee in its many guises – no nonsense, hard work, but capable of unexpected beauty – like a sudden glimpse of the sun on the Tay between two crumbling gable ends.

Every now and then a manager brings together a team that transcends supporter loyalty, whose line-up trips off the tongues of fans of all clubs decades later: Bill Nicholson did it with Tottenham in the early 60s, Shankly with his Liverpool side in the same decade, Busby with his United team that included Best, Law and Charlton, Hearts with the Terrible Trio, Hibs with the Famous Five, and Stein with his Lisbon Lions. No matter your football affections, these were teams you loved to watch in action.

Jim McLean achieved that at Tannadice.

Of course, I hated him and his team when they played Hibs – because they were so good!  

But they were a  team that gave enjoyment to all supporters, not just its own Arabs.

I’ve seldom enjoyed watching a  player as much as Ralph Milne in full flow. Then there was the gallus goalscoring of Luggy Sturrock, the dependability of Hegarty and Narey, the artistry of Bannon, the non-stop energy of Holt, and the drive of Richard Gough to compliment the eccentricity of Hamish the Goalie!

And they were put together with a craftsman’s eye for detail. They were a fitting reflection of a city built on industry and hard graft, but with flair and creativity employed successfully, and a confidence born from its sense of self worth.

Jim McLean, like Shankly and Busby, was  a man of his time, but there is little point in longing for days that are gone. The world has moved on, and football has moved with it, seeking men of a different breed to fit in with changed circumstances. Whether we like it or not, there is nothing to be done about it.

But “Wee Jim” was a complex character – that was, I suspect, part of the reason for his success. The man who could ask an interviewer to avoid pictures of his smiling, in case it wrecked an image “I’ve spent fourteen years building”, could also deck a reporter with a right hook. The manager who could enslave a young player with an unfeasibly long contract and  could destroy tough footballers with a few well chosen words, was also capable of great personal kindnesses. He was human, and that humanity fed his strengths and his weaknesses. I suspect that’s why people  warmed to him despite themselves.

Like the city in which he lived and worked for so long, and to which he brought such success, he was a man whose craft and lightness of touch should never be disguised by the weight and impact of the tools he used to employ them. The silver of the Tay always shone through the murk from the mill chimneys.

We shan’t see his like again, but we will never forgot what he brought to the game. To walk down the slope of Arklay St and see the glow from the floodlights is to recall the excitement his teams brought to so many European nights. His spirit will always haunt the echoes in Tannadice St, and what he built will stand the test of time.

Shoogly legs would never do for this joiner!

Only Human

Perhaps one of the most repeated tales from Scottish football is attributed to John Lambie when he was told a player was concussed and didn’t know who he was:

“Tell him he’s Pele and send him back on!”

Apocryphal or not, it stands as an accurate introduction to  Scottish football’s attitude to sports psychology for many years.

Fair to say, there has always been an acknowledgement of the role of psychology in football, but for many years it was misunderstood, underdeveloped, in usage and practice, and generally called upon in extremis when relegation threatened, or a coach was mystified by a long run of poor form.

You would find features in the tabloids, filed under the same entry as pictures of strikers dressed as cowboys because they were “six shooters”, detailing how “ a psychiatrist”, “ a psychologist” or even “a hypnotist” had been brought in by a manager desperate to get his team back on track. Frequently, the folk brought in were along the lines of stage magicians, illusionists, or mind reading acts, keen on a little extra publicity for their show at the local theatre.

Supporters conjured up visions of watches on chains being swung before the eyes of the players in the dressing room, and the “memory man” waiting after the game to click his fingers at them to bring them out of their victorious “trance”.

Sometimes results improved, sometimes not, but the one consistency was that there was no way of linking the results to any cod psychology employed in the game preparations. To be fair to the managers, most of them saw it as a placebo, something “different” – anything  to break the losing mentality, rather than any kind of actual sports “science” – though I know of at least one manager who challenged his sacking on the basis that “It was the psychologist guy’s fault!.”

Slowly, however, things changed, and even football began to catch up with the times.

There grew an awareness that the pressure to perform under which footballers operate can take its toll on some individuals, and not always in an obvious manner. As the financial  stakes grew exponentially, so clubs began to look for way to maximise the performance of their best and most costly players. This was founded largely on cost effectiveness rather than concern for the individual.

The understanding grew that a player who was “feeling the pressure” was less likely to perform at his full potential than one who was calm and measured. It was acknowledged that high performance sports stars, much like those in the arts, might be susceptible to the strain of the demands put upon them. This was a quantum shift from the days of  footballers expected to be “hard as nails” and “tough as old boots” and brought a realisation that even the “hardest” player might need help with his mental resilience.

A number of sports were moving in the same direction, with psychological input to golfers to correct their swing or calm the “yips”, athletes encouraged to “visualise” their race, to run it, virtually, before the event, as a means of controlling their actual performance. Sports psychology gradually established a place for itself in all major sports and it became commonplace to read of how the assistance given by a trained psychologist could help a sportsperson prepare for a final or a major games event: “Getting their head together” became the accepted phrase.

One important development was the understanding that a “sports psychologist” could not just be brought in, ad hoc,  for one player or one situation. If players were to trust their advice and assessment, they had to be  familiar figures about the club, and similarly, if they wished to work successfully with the players, they needed to be in a position to know them well, and witness them in all modes and all moods.

This proved a stumbling block to a certain extent, as football is a business that demands immediate and demonstrable results, and sports psychology does not work to that model. Whilst the finance director might see a body on the payroll for no apparent reason, those about the players began to be aware of the reassurance of such a presence – even for those who had not used the service themselves. They could see the benefits to team mates who had, and word of mouth is an invaluable tool in such an area.

I think it is fair to say that sports psychology, as it has become accepted and acknowledged, has widened its scope from merely seeking to influence results to being part of the duty of care most clubs feel they have towards their players and their wellbeing. To say it was an altruistic interest would be a little naive, but it was keeping pace with a generally more enlightened societal view on mental health, as well as advanced academic research on the link between psychology and performance.

Anyone applying for careers as pilots, astronauts or similarly stressful occupations are unfailingly screened as to their mental wellbeing and resilience, and increasingly this is the case with footballers, especially at the highest level.

In my first piece in this series, I mentioned the imortance of “transition” in a footballer’s career in as much as it affects his wellbeing, and, thus, ultimately, his performance. Some transitions are obvious and can be well prepared for over a matter fo time: from youth academy to professional academy, from professional academy to first team squad, for example. However, within that, despite the obvious path of progress, there will still be pivotal moments: first time on the first team bench, first time coming on, first time starting a first team game. Each of these are big moments in a player’s life where preparation and support may be necessary.

We also need to take into account that the player is going through all the other transitions that any 16-21 year old would be facing from adolescence to adulthood, maybe leaving home, starting new relationships, coming to grips with a whole range of new responsibilities.

Though playing football may “come naturally” to him in some ways, reaching first team level – or even just becoming a full time player – will make demands on his mental resilience – demands which some will cope with but which, for others, may be overwhelming, especially if their world is consumed totally by football and lacks the balance of non-footballing pals or hobbies.

It is useful to make  comparisons with less extraordinary moments in our own lives. Imagine something which you are used to doing every day – perhaps paying for goods at a check out. Think of the momentary embarrassment of making an error: you present  the card upside down, or you’ve forgotten your pin number, or you have insufficient funds, or you realise you have chosen the wrong item. You blush and look around, while apologising profusely, wondering if anyone has noticed.

Now, imagine that experience in front of 10 to 40,000 people, all concentrating on you intently, and feeling  they have the license to tell you exactly what they think of your performance. The transaction is something you do day after day, almost without thinking about it, it’s not as if you have suddenly lost the ability to shop, but all these people are howling at you as if you have let them down personally and deliberately. Depending on your personality, the thought of that possibility might certainly be playing on your mind as you approach the checkout, and, if it is,  then the likelihood is that it will affect the manner in which you complete your purchase.

Equally, the transition from full time to part time, or from playing to retirement is as challenging to a footballer as it would be to any worker. Your life changes, your expectations and those that others have of you, change dramatically, and big adjustments are required.

It is well known that those who live a regimented life in their twenties – from soldiers to prisoners – find difficulty in adjusting to the demands of the “outside” world once they leave those situations behind. While footballers in Scotland occupy far smaller a “bubble” than EPL megastars, they still live a life which is focused on the game and preparing for it, almost exclusively – to the extent that their weekly and daily routine is shaped by it, and many will have known nothing else since they were sixteen.

So – in preparing players for the requirements of full time football, and, equally, preparing them for the demands of “civilian’ life, there is a role for sports psychology at both ends of a footballing career, as well as the safeguarding of mental wellbeing throughout.

Footballers are not robots or cyphers on a playstation game, they are human with the same frailties and needs for support as the rest of us. The stakes may be higher for them, and their lives more public, but, ultimately, sports psychology is about people not results.

“It wasn’t a guess”

There was a game at Easter Rd, in the 1990’s I think, when Hibs failed to win because the opposition keeper saved a late penalty.

When asked after the game about his shot stopping feat, he confessed that he had ‘inside knowledge’ on which way the kick would go, and, as he said it, he held up the match programme.

That season, it contained a helpful series on the anatomy of goals scored in the last few games – the build up, the final shot, and, in the case of a penalty, which side of the goal was chosen by  the taker.

“I just read it in the programme before the game,” said the keeper, “so it wasn’t a guess, I knew where he was going to put it.”

It’s safe to say that the Programme Editor was not flavour of the week down Leith way for the immediate future.

But I suppose that was my first, albeit unintentional, demonstration of perfomance analysis and the effect it can have on a game.

Statisticians tell us that a player may touch the ball between 90 and 130 times during a game and will only have possession of the balll for around five to six minutes in the 90 minutes, suggesting an average decision making time of around 4 seconds. The figures vary, of course, depending on the player’s position and the details of  the match in which he is playing, but, in general terms, this describes a player’s interaction with the ball during the game.

This indicates that decision making needs to be lightning quick, but  it can be speeded up by some prior knowledge of the possibilities in certain situations: which foot a defender favours, if a winger likes to hit the line or come inside, and so on.

It also follows that what the player does when he does not have the ball may well be more influential than his time on the ball. This excludes defence splitting passes or shots carved out of brilliance, of course, or even fantastically timed clearances, but they are the work of seconds, whilst the player’s off the ball impact can be felt for more than 80 minutes.

It is noticeable that often post match television pundits will highlight a player’s off the ball activity to underline his worth to the side.

The average fan, of course, is taking in the game as a whole; it would be very rare he would be tracking one particular player throughout a game. Some players, because of their position, role, or style tend to catch the eye – the tricky winger, the deadly poacher, the influential midfielder, the bruising centre half – but a team wins or loses on the back of eleven, twelve or thirteen performances, and, as we’ve seen, time on the ball is far from being the only criteria.

In a digital age, it is not surprising that there are apps and software, like Wyscout, available to elite teams to help them analyse and compare players and the action in which they are involved, or not, as the case may be.  Part of the analyst’s job is to translate the data for the coaches, with information on opponents, to help prepare for a game, or to provide a breakdown after a match  to debrief staff and players, and to provide material for indiividuals to study to help them adjust their own game – as a golfer would study his swing, for instance.

Again, the figures tell us that, in the heat of a game, the coach’s understanding from the dugout of incidents on the pitch is anything up to 50% mistaken. This has led to two staples of the game: the oft repeated post match quote “I didn’t see it” – which may be factually correct, or just an admission that he may have seen it wrongly, and the sight of the performance analyst, laptop in hand, rushing down the tunnel at half time so he can present the actual facts to the manager before he gets it wrong in his half time talk! Though it’s not yet common in Scotland, some benches choose to be wired to the analyst during the game so that they can receive instant messages about particular passages in play.

The instructions may still be simple: “Stay on the shoulder”, “Find the big man up front” “Use the channels” “Get in behind” – but they are more likely to be effective if they are based on factual data rather than surmisal and frustration.

It is perhaps symptomatic of the game in Scotland that a fair section of the support base are still happy to use the term “laptop manager” as a form of abuse.It is fair to say that if a laptop is all that a coach has in his armoury, then he is liable to be ineffective, because good coaching will always be about the connection between coach and player.

In teaching, we were surprised at what happened when technology was first introduced. It certainly increased the opportunity for information gathering, and provided advanced teaching aids, but, until we were used to its requirements, it was often the case that it formed a barrier between teacher and pupil, a development we had maybe not foreseen. It is important that we use technology as an aid to communication, not as a substitute for it, and many coaches have discovered this to their regret.

At the end of the day, performance analysis, as with all areas of sports science, is no more than a tool to help coaches  get the best out of their players. Unlike VAR, it is not seeking to produce ‘perfection’, but rather a supply of information and facts. How the coach uses them is still a matter for human decision making and interaction.

A good analogy would be the traffic reports on the radio. They tell you what is happening on the roads on which you may intend to drive, but they don’t drive the car – that’s still your responsibility.

However, your trip will be easier, and probably faster, if you set out armed with all the  available knowledge of the route ahead.

Forewarned is forearmed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talent spotting

They used to be familiar figures at football grounds and public parks around the country. You could spot them by their car coats, scarves, and notebooks. At the end of the game, there would be great interest in whose coach or parent they approached for a confidential chat, an exchange of phone numbers, a reassuring pat on the arm. Often they were part time scouts, full time taxi drivers – which gave them transport around the country and the freedom to organise their working hours around games they needed to watch.

Scouts have been part of our game for almost as long as the game has existed – like prospectors, sifting through the silt of a thousand minor games, hoping to find that gold nugget which makes it all worthwhile – the travel on unknown roads, the freezing nights under the lights, the wet Sunday mornings  by sloping pitches, the urgent conversations, the carefully detailed reports.

No less than in any other department of a football club, their world has changed dramatically in the last few years. More likely to be spotted now by their expensive coat, fashionable trousers, shiny brown shoes, and casually slung laptop case, they still attend the matches, still prepare reports, and still search for that nugget – but their modus operandi has progressed immeasurably thanks to the world of computers and the internet.

Apps and software exist  now which can summon up game footage of virtually every professional footballer in Europe, if not the world. Clubs exchange footage of their games, even children’s academy games are routinely filmed and analysed, clips of individuals and passages of play being available to staff and players as needed.

“What can you tell me about Joe Bloggs of  Anywhere Athletic?” can be partially answered by prudent and knowledgeable use of a laptop – though, of course, that is only a small part of the operation.

Any decent scout will watch a player in action home and away, in good and bad weather, and at different parts of the season. Team mates and league position will also be a factor, as will the talk around the club – for football is a small world and scouts have connections everywhere.

Whatever the scout’s view, it will need to fit in with the thoughts of the club Chief Executive, the Director of Football, the manager and his trusted members of his coaching staff. Finance, and thus, inevitably, agents, might often be the most important piece of the equation.

But if that sums up what the scout does and how he does it – it fails to examine the core of the job that he does.

One of the indications of the progress made in football can be very simply found on the doors along the corridors of a football training centre. We have come a long way from the days of the “sponge man” and the “trainer”. Where you might once have found a sign indicating “Chief Scout”, you are now more likely to be faced with “Talent Identification Department”.

And so, of course, this raises the perennial question: “What is Talent?”

Because, ultimately, that is the skill of the scout: to be able to identify “Talent”. And the need for that skill generates an ongoing debate, to be found, not just in sport, but in a whole range of human activities: how do you identify talent, how do you know it when you see it, and what do you hope to do with it once it has been noted?

In football, of course, this is a particularly crucial discussion, as “identified talent” can cost millions and also generate millions, and the idea of working with high level  “talent” which can be further developed, provides a professional challenge and personal excitement for any coach worth his salt. How better to test your abilities?

The word “talent’ has always been generic, however. Back in the sixties, both genders used it to describe members of the opposite sex whom they saw as attractive. “Was there any talent at the dance?” It’s easy to see that, even in that context, it was subjective and wide ranging in its implications, and pretty resistant to a narrow definition.

So what does it mean in footballing terms?

The simple answer is the possession of  the technical skill to play football well.

But anyone who knows the game will immediately raise their eyebrows at such a modest answer, because, as everyone knows, there is a lot more to being a successful top level footballer than mere skill with the ball.

There was a trend back in the nineties for half time displays from guys who could perform a ludicrous number of “keepie uppies” and all manner of tricks with a football. Proper wizards they were. But none of them were elite footballers. Similarly, in more recent times, there has not been a high correlation between Futsal stardom and top level football success. Clearly, there is more to football talent than ball skills.

So what else does our “talent identifier” need to look for when he is pitchside with his tablet or laptop?

All the skill in the world is not going to be effective if the player does not possess the strength and conditioning to employ it on the pitch during a game. This can apply to general fitness but also attributes which pertain to his particular position – cardiovascular strength, quick feet, strong upper body, low centre of gravity, and, in certain positions, height. Wherever, and however, he plays, he needs to establish a presence on the pitch – through physicality, speed, deftness, or endurance.

He also needs what might be termed “footballing sense”, or “vision”. “Playing with his head up”, we often call it. What does he do with the ball when he has it under control, how does he influence the game, how does he relate to team mates – as an individual or as team player?

All of these feed into the potential for success, but it would be a tall order for any scout to identify all of this on his initial viewings. Nevertheless, he needs to keep all of this in mind when judging his target.

There are additional elements which will contribute to a footballer’s success – and these are even more difficult to spot at first sight.

His personality and attitude will impact greatly to his progress. Is he a good listener and receptive to coaching? Has he a thirst for improvement – on and off the pitch? Is this allied to a hunger for success and reaching his potential? Has he mental as well as physical resilience? How does he react to set backs, can he learn through trauma, or does it simply discourage and distract him? Can he place football in context as part of his life rather than the whole of it, so that he can maintain a balanced mind set whether things are going well or badly? Has he strong family  support or a settled home life? How does he lead and communicate?

Perhaps most of all, is he self aware and capable of reflection, or does he react to constructive criticism by deflecting or challenging any accurate assessments of his areas for improvement? Has he aims and targets, does he know what he wants to achieve? Is he fully aware of what he can  achieve?

If he ticks all these boxes, then he has a very good chance of making progress and succeeding in the game – but they are a very tall order, and the humble talent identifier is unlikely to find all of them already  present in the nascent star he is watching.

However, and this is crucial, with experience and insight, he might be able to spot those young players who have the capacity to develop in all these areas. Perhaps the easiest recent example of such a player might be John McGinn who left Hibernian for Aston Villa and, from an early stage, was clearly a player with  physical, mental and technical attributes that suggested he had the capability of progressing to great things.

Talent is not “teachable”, it comes from innate ability; but it is coachable. It is a basic starting point which can be taken and moulded into improvement, progress, and achieved potential. That’s the task of a football club’s training centre and its staff and coaches  – to provide the opportunity and insight that will enable a player to reach his best, to establish a culture in which players flourish – despite all their different needs and personalities. You can only make a great team by nurturing each individual, you can only drive a player on to greater heights by assessing his particular needs and putting in place the challenges which will inspire him.

And so we find that “talent” really refers not only to what is already innately present in a young player,  but also to the perceived capacity for  development, improvement, and progress  – in each crucial area – technical, physical and mental.

It exists in a perfect fulcrum formed by ability, potential, the physical, the mental, and the willingness to listen and adapt.

The talent identifier, therefore, in more ways than one, is something of a “fortune teller” – he has to judge a player not just by what he sees before him, but also what he thinks he might see in the future.

Now that takes talent!

 

 

 

 

Ready to come on?

In the 1970s, there was a great renaissance in Scottish Theatre, with three particular plays  catching the public’s imagination: “Willie Rough”, by Bill Bryden, about a young man getting a start in the Clydeside shipyards during the Great War, “The Bevellers”, by Roddy McMillan, following a apprentice’s introduction to the world of a glass blowing factory, and “The Slab Boys”, John Byrne’s epic story of life in the dye room of a Paisley carpet factory.

What these masterpieces had in common was that they showed the introduction of a newcomer into an unknown world of work: a process that inevitably portrayed the conflict which is necessary for effective drama.

Working with apprentice footballers has  reminded me  of  those plays, and that conflict,  which springs from the trauma of being introduced into a world where you are the new boy and everybody else seems to know what they are doing, where you might be ridiculed for failing to live up to expectations of which you may not even be aware.

For supporters, the route from youth player to first team squad member may be seen as a fairly smooth ride on a development escalator, but the reality for the majority of players is not  that simple.

A young player signing a full time contract is making a binding commitment against a background of uncertainty and transition – a background which exists for all 16 to 21 year olds, irrespective of their trade, education, or career. He is moving from a world which has probably been safe and familiar for at least a decade – at school and at home – and with a close group of friends,  to a wider, less familiar world, which is going to make many more demands on his capabilities – physical and emotional.  It is also likely to be an overwhelmingly male world – with all the implications that has for emotional intelligence, open communication, and peer group pressure.

While it is clear that effective coaching on technical and tactical matters, allied to considered advice on sports science, will give a young player the best chance of developing to full potential, clubs are starting to realise that the manner in which the transition from youth player to potential first teamer is managed can make a crucial difference to the player’s future progress.

It is tempting to make assumptions about a footballer’s development, to assume that, if a player has been with  a club’s Academy since the age of ten, then each year is just the next step on a familiar  staircase, the next move in an obvious sequence. Sometimes even a player himself may think in this way, almost developing a sense of entitlement, as if long service brings its own, inevitable, reward.

The flaw in this view is that it fails to take into account that these adolescent males are not simply footballers; they are teenaged boys coping with all the confusion and uncertainty brought by that condition, and, on top of that, once they sign full time, they are coping with a level of continuous scrutiny – physical, technical and psychological –  which would be oppressive even for the most confident of adults.

As in all walks of life, the young man’s personality will shine through, affecting how he copes with the transition from youth footballer to full time professional: confidence, or a lack of it, a willingness to learn, determination and perseverance – all these qualities come in to play alongside ability and attitude, but it is for the player to learn how to employ these traits, and for the Academy staff to identify those who are struggling to adapt to new conditions. Given an adolescent male’s propensity to operate behind a mask of bravado, this is not always an easy task.

Nobody doubts that there is a need for resilience if any youngster is to make it at elite level. There may have been a time when shouting, and even forms of bullying, would have been considered a suitable method of “toughening up” a young player: “If he can’t stand up for himself, he’s no good to me.”

However, these days there is an acknowledgment, in football and elsewhere, that young people have individual learning styles and a ‘one size fits all’ approach is unlikely to be effective. There has to be consistency, of course, but within that, a realisation that coaching and man management must take account of the individual.

Too high a percentage  of youngsters who are not offered a first or extended full time contract, drift away from football, or sometimes, from sport altogether, despite having undoubted talent, fitness and ability – which may well be applicable in other sporting settings.

An initial disappointment at hearing you are not to be “kept on” is totally understandable, but when that disappointment colours decisions which will affect the rest of a player’s life, there has to be a concern that the Academy or football club has not been doing its job properly.

Like it or not, any organisation which has responsibility for young people between the ages of 16-21 has a duty of care. These youngsters are making crucial decisions at a time in their development which is challenging in any case, irrespective of football, education or career. We know that the part of the brain which works out consequences is not yet fully developed in males under the age of 25. If we are to challenge them, we must be prepared to support them through their choices.

Supporters can be critical. There is as likely to be criticism of playing too many youth players in the first team as there is for not playing enough. But perhaps we should be more aware of the reasons why so many young players seem to flourish and then fade. When a player is not fit enough to play for a full ninety minutes, eyes naturally turn towards the club’s strength and conditioning regime, but if a player’s temperament lets him down, then perhaps we should be looking at those in the Academy and youth set up tasked with preparing him for the transition to senior squad.

If you are a parent or teacher, you want your child or pupil to learn for themselves, but also to be aware that they have support. You won’t carry them across the stream, but you will encourage them to make the leap, knowing you are there to help them should they slip or fall. Of course, it remains important that the leap is made and that challenges are overcome.

Dr Áine McNamara of Dublin City University has spoken widely on what she calls “The Rocky Road”. Her research shows that players who have to overcome challenges on their way through the system invariably fare better than those for whom the process is calm and untroubled. The strength they find to overcome obstacles serves them well in the acquisition of resilience and the sustaining of their careers. If we accept this, then the corollary is that we need to ensure supports are in place when the going gets tough – at times like transition. We need to set the bar high and make the tasks challenging, but we also need the reassurance of a safety net. Testing to destruction is not a good model for a sports academy!

We need to ask ourselves how we equip young players for transition – from child to youth academy, from youth to professional development squad, and from there to first team duties, or a transfer elsewhere, or even out of football. How have we equipped them for their next steps?

The Life Skills education that a youngster gets at school or college post 16 needs to be available – in making choices, personal planning, financial affairs, managing change, emotional intelligence, organisation. These things are not distractions from the main focus of footballing success, they are the bricks that  build a solid foundation of continuing learning upon which a young man can be receptive to coaching, thoughtful about his career, and self aware enough to make the  decisions which are right for him. To progress, a developing footballer needs the confidence which comes from self knowledge, rather than the bravado which comes from fear of the unknown.

I am fond of quoting football writer, Hunter Davies, who suggested we tend to hot house football talent exclusively from the age of 12, and then are surprised when we end up with  a gifted 22 year old player with the emotional intelligence of a 12 year old.

Similarly, West Indian writer, CLR James wisely stated: “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” A developing footballer will flourish when he has a perspective on football and its place in life, when it is one of his talents and possibilities, not the whole of his existence. How many players’ lives have we seen implode because they only felt in control when they were on the pitch, and were unable to deal with “real life”? And should we not care about the mental wellbeing of those we admire for their  talent? After all, they are human beings, not ciphers in a computerised football game.

A young footballer signed to a club – at whatever level – is being afforded an opportunity, a chance to follow his dream and achieve his ambition. To be successful he will need the tools, as a player, but also as a young person, to take full advantage of his situation.

Is it not the club’s responsibility to equip him equally in both these areas?