Kristjaan Speakman has been involved in player development for almost two decades. He is leading a program at Birmingham City FC Academy where he emphasises the value of having an incredibly strong team and focusing the curriculum around a safe and open environment. As a result of that, he and his team are producing players. In his interview with Kristjaan, PDP’s Dave Wright goes in depth into how Birmingham City FC Academy operates and discusses the success of a program which has produced Demarai Gray, Jack Butland and Nathan Redmond.
Kristjaan Speakman is a passionate player developer who has always had a love for football. Despite the unique spelling of his name – his mother has Estonian heritage – his roots lie in the Midlands. Born and raised in Derby to parents both with a teaching background, he grew up watching Derby County FC and remains a fan, following the team when he can around work commitments.
Growing up, he would regularly play football in the park or on a little bit of grass between two housing estates every night after school. Football wasn’t his sole sporting focus as a child, however, as he also was a keen cricketer. But it is the memories of attending Derby County matches that have stayed with him: “I remember standing on old milk crates in the Normanton End so I really was in and around football from an early age,” he says.
Kristjaan describes his younger years with fondness: “I was fortunate to just catch the last years of a culture within school where sport was prominent and wide-ranging, there were lots of opportunities to play different sports.”
This gets him thinking about the ongoing specialisation debate. “These days that kind of experience leads to massive debate around kids not having these opportunities.” He continues, “I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all argument, but we are perhaps missing a trick not having a multi-sports ethos as much as we could in football development. At early ages I feel there is no issue playing a range of sports. Socially and from a problem-solving, critical thinking and cognitive development point of view it’s of massive benefit.” Speakman cites Stoke City goalkeeper Jack Butland as an example: “His pathway was heavily influenced by rugby and cricket until age 14 so football was probably third in line, but he’s gone on to be England’s youngest goalkeeper.”
Kristjaan found himself involved in football coaching from a young age, and puts this early involvement down to luck, “which,” he says, “I think everyone needs.” Fortune struck one day while Kristjaan sat in the sixth form common room at school, when the head of sport entered and offered some work experience with a coaching company during the approaching school holiday. “One or two of us put our hands up and we had a go at it,” he remembers. “The company offered multi-sport projects for disadvantaged kids in and around the Shaftsbury Sports Centre [a council operated venture]. The guys who ran it were great, I got along with them well and ended up getting a bit more involved by helping with their Saturday morning football program, so that’s where it all began. They put me through the old level two award and I was able to make a bit of money delivering sessions.”
Like so many other aspiring coaches on the developmental and qualification pathway, Kristjaan entered the game young and worked his way into academy football after working with a number of clubs and local companies via his hometown club, Derby County. “I managed to get into Derby County after seeing an advert for scouts at the club,” he says. “I wasn’t a scout by any means but was working with lots players and thought I could recommend the better ones. After about a year, Derby County kept their academy open during the summer so there was an opportunity to get involved during the off-season as a coach. Terry Westley [now Academy Manager at West Ham United] had just started at Derby County and I managed to get a position part-time. The landscape back then was very different, there were very few full-time academy staff and maybe only 3 or 4 of those were coaches.”
The value in having a strong mentor early on clearly played a part in Speakman’s progression as a young coach. This reflects the fact that having senior support seems to be a common trait found in some of the best young coaches we have interviewed at Player Development Project. “Going into Derby full-time meant taking a pay cut but with Terry asking me to come in it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.” Kristjaan continues, “When Terry then moved to Birmingham City he asked me to come over with him as Assistant Academy Manager and I developed a lot in that role. When Terry moved on to the Premier League I was offered the chance to become the Academy Manager here and have been doing this role for the last five years.”
Now that Kristjaan is a long time established in player development, he has had plenty of time to analyse Birmingham City’s philosophy: “From a club perspective it’s a vision about trying to provide an environment for elite footballers in the Birmingham area. About 93% of our players originate within one hour of the training ground – we want Birmingham kids involved and we have a rich history in the last six or seven years in terms of the quality of players coming through to first-team level, which is pleasing.” He continues, “From an academy perspective our philosophy is to develop a program that caters for every individual. The reality of development is we don’t know who is going to break through. We believe in player development being completely non-linear. The boy at 4th or 5th in your group at age 12 might be your best player by 15.”
The club promotes a style of play which Kristjaan describes as, “trying to play progressive football through the thirds with fluidity and maintaining a focus on developing critical decision makers.”
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