THIS was written in 2010, not long after FSG’s takeover of Liverpool Football Club, but having started writing something new along similar lines, I realised – there’s no point. The point I’m making hasn’t changed one bit. All that’s maybe changed is the focus needed at the club from this point on; but more of that in the postscript. To business.
It’s unlikely that those in football circles will know the name “Margaret Scott Brown”. In fact, it’s unlikely that many people outside of Margaret Scott Brown’s own circles will know the name “Margaret Scott Brown”. But having enjoyed ten minutes of her time last Saturday morning, I got the feeling that they should. People in general that is. And more specifically, people in football.
Mrs Scott Brown is a music teacher at a local school. And you can be pretty certain that there are many other teachers like her throughout the country. People who exude dedication to their craft – who are deeply immersed in the technical and vocational aspects of their career. But what’s maybe underappreciated is how certain aspects of their expertise, if ‘bottled’ and transferred to other teaching and coaching disciplines, might provide the kind of ‘secret sauce’ that makes a crucial difference. The key to genuine competitive advantage.
The chance encounter took place in central Dundee. I was walking with my wife and young twins when we encountered a school band, playing in the open air, and the sound was nothing short of breathtaking. And me being prone to unsolicited interrogation, I approached the lady who seemed to be responsible for the group, and, well, bugged her.
It turned out that this group of kids had been in her and her colleagues’ charge since the age of 5. And while you’d expect that teachers spend most of their working lives engaged in crowd control and social work, it quickly emerged that something was different about this lady’s approach.
We work from the top down, then bottom up
Far from leaving things to chance and relying on the odd unexpected talent to emerge from the ranks, it seems things are far more calculated under the tutilege of this particular group. You could see it as simply an office to turn up at five days a week, reacting to events as they unfold. But it’s clear these people see things differently. They see themselves as managing a production line of talent, with each year bringing a new intake at grass roots level, and each year churning out a group of finished articles, ready to make their way in life as exceptional musicians, audio engineers, or some combination of the two.
It seems they start out by setting a vision, with everything slotting into place from there. Mrs Scott Brown made it clear that they started out making sure they had a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve with the kids. After all, in their eyes, what they’re managing is a musical production line. Their ‘organisation’ has a clear and universally accepted mission. They know exactly the kind of musicians they want to produce, the mix of skills they want to equip each child with before they leave, and the values and character they want to instil along the way. Listening to her talk, you felt as if you were listening to a mission statement – a manifesto, in fact. And the one thing that kept springing to mind was the parallel with Barcelona’s youth system, housed at La Masia.
With the vision clearly defined and all staff buying into it unreservedly, what comes next? Well, they work from the top down. With the clear picture of the general level they want to achieve with each kid, they set about putting the foundations in place, with general principles introduced at every phase of the child’s development, informed by factors you maybe wouldn’t expect in a school music department.
“We start out by introducing the youngest kids to the idea of music with movement and rhythm”. The idea at this stage is to build in a love for the playful aspect of what they’re learning, without introducing too much of a technical nature. But that’s not to say young kids are held back from technical challenges. Some staff, in their own time, are training in what’s known as The Suzuki Method. This involves a long-term intensive training syllabus that’s akin to something from the martial arts tradition. Again, the aim is producing children with the highest level of ability, but baked into that aim is the ideal of building the right character within the children.
The root belief of this approach? That all kids are capable of attaining the highest level. No kids are excluded at the outset – that flies in the face of their philosophy.
The key tenets include:
- Immersing the children in the musical community generally
- Building a support structure with other children
- Experiencing and analysing the performance of the very best in their profession
- Avoidance of aptitude tests and ‘auditions’ in the learning phase – they ‘play’
- Children learn by ear – only later do they learn to read sheet music
- Learning from as young an age as possible (with scaled down instruments to fit the phsyique of small children)
- Insistence on the highest quality of coaching and the highest professional standards among coaches – but note – a degree is not required
- Constant return to the basic repertoire – even when the kid becomes more advanced (both individually and within groups)
- Encouragement of the right mentality and group solidarity between the kids.
As well as bringing to mind footage and stories of the Barcelona Academy system, with the tight bonds between the children who attended there, the strong spiritual and Catalan ethos that pervades their work, the emphasis on working as a collective, and the refusal to judge children on first impressions or on perceived physical limitations (think Iniesta – think Messi), the approach this method promotes is the suspension of judgement. And it’s that which strikes chords when you consider the footballing buzzword at the moment. The word that’s been casually thrown about since the arrival of John Henry and NESV as the new owners of Liverpool Football Club. “Moneyball”.
The Suzuki method’s founder, as stated in the Wikipedia entry for the method, “believed that teachers who test for musical aptitude before taking students, or teachers who look only for “talented” students, are limiting themselves to people who have already started their music education.”
When you read reports on the early development of both Messi and Iniesta, it’s clear that without the suspension of judgement on their physical attributes, they might not have developed into the footballers they are – footballers that the whole world enjoy. By focussing on their creativity, vision, and technical qualities instead, Barcelona allowed themselves the space to benefit from the unexpected. Why judge a child before we know what they’re really capable of? Or how they’ll turn out physically, mentally and emotionally?
“Babe Ruth was a fat piece of shit”
Moneyball’s approach was to eschew accepted convention in an established sport and accept players like Jeremy “The Badger” Brown. Traditional scouting and assessments methods excluded people like him from the top levels of the game. The Scouting Director for the team who eventually drafted him, the Oakland A’s, said “It’s not a pretty body… This guy’s a great baseball player trapped in a bad body.” But then as one of his team mates later replied in a team talk: “Babe Ruth was a fat piece of shit”.
Sure, Andres Iniesta was a little lad who pined for his parents every day he was away from them, but did his pale complexion and frail physique lead the staff at the club to doubt his chances of a future at the club? The response chimes with The Suzuki Method. Guardiola, having seen him himself while Iniesta was 14, commented “he reads the game better than me”. But then the things the coaching staff at Barca list ahead of other criteria are “how well does he read the game”, along with “does he have vision”. Iniesta comments on his tutilege at the club: ” “I play like I always did. At Barcelona you learn loads but it comes out in an improvised way… You learn to be sharper, cleverer… Small players learn to be intuitive, to anticipate, to protect the ball. A guy who weighs 90 kilos doesn’t move like one who weighs 60. In the playground I always played against much bigger kids and I always wanted the ball. Without it, I feel lost.”
That differs from the qualities, we’re led to believe, that the English footballing establishment has come to value. It may now be something of a cliche, but the football we’re served up week upon week bears out its truth. Save for the occasional exception, either on a club-wide level or an individual level (where the talent is exceptional), first on the list tend to be the physical qualities. Can he dominate space? Is he powerful? Is he fast? Does he have stamina? Is he aggressive? And thus, instead of the beautiful game, we bake the opposite emphasis into the game’s very roots. And we don’t only do it at individual club level – we do it on an institutionalised basis through our coaching establishment. People like Trevor Brooking have fought long and hard to try and change these things. But they’re fighting against generations of accepted wisdom and convention. It’s a stubborn Ox to shift.
Only the dead fish swim with the stream
Given a background of endemic and rigid convention throughout the game, baked into its very grass roots at source, the creative strategist recognises fertile ground for the rule breaker. If someone can genuinely challenge the paradigm and make that alternative approach work, they’ll have stolen a march on their competitors that they’ll benefit from for a generation or more.
Arguably that’s already the case with Arsenal, who under Wenger’s stewardship have implemented something like the kind of Academy approach seen at Barcelona – at least in terms of the footballing ethos at the club. But have they implemented it successfully? Does their system generate a production line of unusually shaped footballing minds that wow the footballing world? It’s open to debate. In Wilshere they clearly produced a gem. But beyond that, can we really say their output is of genuine world class quality?
Some might say the nut has yet to be cracked in our domestic game. We do, however, have a successful precedent. Some clubs, most notably Liverpool, Manchester United and Celtic, ‘stand for’ a certain brand of football. People, at least of a certain generation, associate these clubs’ names with the style of football they tended to generate – and not on a one-off basis – in a period of dynastic succession – a footballing ‘production line’.
Which leads us back to Mrs Scott Brown, and to her colleagues’ approach. Again, to quote The Suzuki Method: “Just as every child is expected to learn their native language, Suzuki expected every child to be able to learn to play music well when they were surrounded with a musical environment from infancy.”
It’s this approach which informs their ‘coaching’. Everything in their syllabus aims, for each child:
- To build their musical capacity (attention, dexterity, awareness of others and their role in the collective, their sensory acuity, and so forth)
- To build the quality of their reference group (with competitiveness flowing from it in a positive way, rather than imposed by external examination)
- To tailor their specialism to their strengths (physical limitations, special aptitudes, preferences and interests)
- To build their character, attitude to constructive criticism, empathy and solidarity for others, and mental strength.
With that approach baked in, the ‘coaches’ can take a step back as is their planned schedule and assess the group as a whole, both within single years and across years. They can think more creatively in terms of balance and blend. How the components might work together to produce something beautiful, and to challenge and encourage the children to develop their own ideas.
In later years, as these qualities are reinforced and become automatic, the children are allowed to explore the more technical and creative aspects of their craft, with audio engineering facilities made available, and children encouraged (using Sebalius software) to arrange, compose and conduct pieces of their own, for performance both by individuals and by groups, from small bands to full-sized orchestral pieces performed in concert halls.
It makes you wonder.
“The biggest challenge is getting time with the children”
If you’ve watched documentaries on the state of youth development in this country, such as the BBC’s recent “Can England Win The Next World Cup”, the message we repeatedly hear is that the coaches are hamstrung by the inability to ensure the right quality and quantity of time with their students. This is echoed by Mrs Scott Brown. She emphasised that the biggest challenge was getting time with the children, and when that time was available, ensuring the right quality and intensity of focus.
Gary Lineker’s introduction to that program stated that “something is very wrong”. But again, this is open to debate. In cosmetic terms, all that’s needed are tweaks. We need to somehow ensure the syllabus is correct, that the right tone is set for the game from root to fruit and back again – the style of football this nation will stand for – and that time and intensity and the right standard of coaching stafff are put at the disposal of the available talent across the country. But to do that, while it sounds straightforward, takes the kind of planning and funding and unified acceptance that isn’t currently possible. Vested interests are entrenched enough that people are reluctant to make changes unless it’s absolutely necessary. People aren’t convinced that change is needed – and you can’t escape from prison until you realise you’re behind bars.
So again, the creative strategist should, you’d think, see this as fertile ground for asserting a competitive advantage. Entrenched convention, and a reluctance to budge. In the context of looming financial doping regulations and stringent Academy catchment rules, the time is ripe for the creative strategic thinker to steal a march on their competition. But to do so would take insight, vision, commitment and determination to stick with the blueprint through good times and bad. We talk about Barcelona now as if the magic was down to some combination of clever transfer dealings (Ronaldinho et al), Rijkaard, and Guardiola. But the fact is their success is founded on their own youth system. Sure, they have an unfairly large catchment area when compared to your average Premier League club in the North West of England – there are only so many thousand kids available to these clubs, whereas Barca has a massively larger catchment at its disposal – but that’s no reason to be defeatist. The competing Academies tend to follow the tried and tested methods. Sure, they might bring in Sports Scientists and Nutritionists, and they might have DVD analysis and prozone. But do they genuinely follow a footballing blueprint? One that’s founded on mutual trust and a commitment to accepting risk? To valuing the footballing brain ahead of the footballing brawn? You have to say they don’t. And that’s where the opportunity lies.
Liverpool are in a unique position in this regard. One of the few remaining positives their fans can take from the last few years under the ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett was the recruitment by Rafa Benitez of two former senior and central staff of the Barcelona Academy set up. Pep Segura took on a directorial role. Rodolpho Borell took on a hands on coaching role with the oldest Academy groups. Their role was to implement a revised approach to the youth development work at the club. That bodes well, and the club, if it’s wise, will commit to that decision and build on it. Build on it to the extent that it echoes throughout every aspect of the club.
Like Mrs Scott Brown’s Music Department, the Academy, and the club as a whole, needs a clear vision of what it stands for. With that in place, the scope opens up for creativity within those established guidelines. So a midfielder is a little heavy – haven’t Liverpool had a big lad do well in that position before? So the keeper is a little eccentric and won’t stick on his line – haven’t they already had a ‘character’ in that role before? With the clear vision in place, and the staff and boardroom’s collective buy-in to its tenets, it becomes possible to build a blend, and to accomodate the little ‘nuances’ in individuals’ make up. So each player isn’t the full finsihed article in all departments? So what? It’s the collective output that matters. It’s that approach that allows Barcelona’s players to trust those in their rank who are less technically gifted with the ball. Last season we saw carles Puyol in the inside left channel in a key home game deliver an incisive one-touch assist in a crunch game. The guy is no more gifted in technical terms than your average centre half. But they trust him with the ball, and he does the same. They have a collective approach – a solidarity – and it brings out more than the sum of their parts. Or it has done, and pretty consistently now for several years, generating some of the most entertaining and dramatic football any of us have ever seen.
One only has to read “The Secret Diary of a Liverpool Scout” to understand that, until recently, the ‘footballing brains ahead of footballing brawn’ ethos was uppermost in the Liverpool scouting department’s minds. It’s that approach, and the suspension of judgement on the more ‘traditionally’ valued qualities that will yield the kind of value we need to find, both in the transfer market, and in our youth development.
Coupled with that, we need to bake in a vision for the club that’s applied at all levels, from the youngest children to the senior squad to the tea lady. It’s only in that context, with everyone pulling in the same direction, that correct, congruent decisions will be made, and consistent value will be achieved.
So you hope that those tasked with strategic decisions at the club bear these things in mind in the near future. It would be a solution that resonates with the club’s history and culture, with the expectations of its fans, and with the benefit of the game in this country. It would also provide the chance to establish genuine competitive advantage – the kind that only long-term commitment, planning, and investment can bring.
Is it so hard to achieve? Well, yes. It takes vision, and peculiar skills. But one brief chat in a city street reveals that those skills exist within this country – you just have to be crafty to figure out who has them. Who churns out gifted kids on a regular basis? Whose work ‘fits’ with our way of doing things? Can we get them in and pick their brains? Can we have them review our plans and advise on potential pitfalls?
It’s a thought. If we’re deprived of Mansour-style resource, we might as well think a little smarter than they do.
18 months on, what can we say about our progress on this front? I’d argue we’ve made strides in our recruitment of young talent in that time, and of course, as we’ve seen in the Next Gen series and our reserve games, we’ve got some incredibly talented kids coming through. But of course, as we’ve seen in those self-same games, we’re not unique in that respect. It’s the capacity to, as Cruyff puts it, push the top kids out of their comfort zone by playing them a level or two above their own, and accelerate promotion to the first team that’s currently in question – the alignment and integration of the whole system.
The success of the entire ‘blueprint’ depends on it. Yes, it takes patience, but the benefits are myriad. In the context of a first team squad that needs an injection of pace, directness, fearlessness, audacity and freshness, not only would a joined up focus on this aspect put the Academy’s keystone in place, providing incentive and reward for the hard work done to date, it might also help lift the malaise spreading at first team level.