Betfred Sport

The Ben Smith column: How times have changed

Anyone who regularly reads my articles will know that I have been preparing for a life after playing football for some time. This season, on a personal note, has deteriorated into pretty much a non event.

With this in mind, my planning has become a little more urgent as there is a real possibility that I will need to look for an alternative full time employment in summer.

As a result of this, I decided last Sunday to go to the Science and Football Conference at East London University. This is an annual event held for people within the football industry and under and postgraduates who are looking for working in professional football.

It was the first time I had visited such an event and didn’t really know what to expect. There were four different lecture halls simultaneously hosting talks throughout the day. I spent the majority of the day in the coaching lecture hall and was lucky enough to hear from some very intelligent speakers.

Two talks that really got me thinking were by John McDermott who is the Academy Director at Tottenham and, funnily enough, a guy called Ben Smith who is part of the Performance Systems Department at Chelsea.

How academies have been improved 

They talked about how they work within their academies and it made me reflect on my time in an elite academy at Arsenal. When I was an apprentice the training ground at Arsenal was much like a lower league training ground is now. It had changing rooms, pitches and a canteen.

Admittedly the pitches were superb but the overall facilities were pretty basic. No battalion of Sports Scientist’s or Movement Coaches.

Fast forward nearly twenty years and the facilities these boys now have available to them are amazing. At Chelsea they have an outdoor ball court which has cameras everywhere.

These are linked up to big outdoor screens which can then play back, for example, a player taking free kicks so he can then go through his technique with a coach. Alternatively they could get some footage of David Beckham on the screen and the player can try and imitate his technique.

They also have movement coaches who watch how a player moves and analyse ways in which he can improve his movement to either become quicker or prevent injury.

If I would have had those sources... 

I was sitting there wondering whether if I had the opportunity to use such equipment I might not have been the slowest player in the team at every club I’ve been at since I was twenty one!! Although John McDermott did say that speed of thought was more important to him that speed of foot, if only I had met him when I was sixteen!

At both Tottenham and Chelsea they give the young scholars projects to do such as getting them to look at the six best players in their position and talking about there strengths. In the case of Chelsea the players report back to the coaches through a presentation.

Some may feel this is a little much but I think this will help them not only develop as a player but also as a person as it will give them the chance to become more confident when talking in front of people. This is a good skill to have whatever industry you work in.

John McDermott especially talked about the environment he wanted to create for his players. He said that the best teacher is the environment not the coach, which I thought was a great quote.

Obviously the way Barcelona play is very en vogue at the moment and it was clear to see that both the clubs are trying to imitate that style. John said that at Tottenham they want all their players to have midfield tendencies irrespective of their position. This is clear to see at Barcelona as they get as many midfielders in their team as possible. At the end of his presentation he asked for any questions, all I wanted to ask was could I have a job!

Thoughts in my mind 

All of this brought me back to the discussion I regularly have with myself. Was I better off doing my apprenticeship at Arsenal or at a League 1 or 2 club? 

Yes you are exposed to excellent training and, especially these days, great facilities but does that compensate for maybe getting in a lower league first team at eighteen with all the valuable experience that can bring?

As much as you go to a top club to try and break into the first team the reality is you are more likely to have a career lower down the pyramid.

While the top clubs will argue they are only preparing players for their first team they also have a responsibility to prepare players for the lower leagues which are a lot different to the Premier League.

I always have found it funny when these young boys bounce into the dressing room at whatever club I've been at and then watch their face drop as reality sets in and they can’t find the sports science department, movement coach and have to wash their own kit!!

By Ben Smith

Give me your views on the subject at @bsmudger7

< Back to Columnists