Dan Micciche has a reputation as an innovator and someone who encourages creativity in player development. Player Development Project, Editor Dave Wright was lucky enough to have 90 minutes with Dan to discuss his own story and pick his brains around session design, creativity, positive learning environments and more. In part one of this two-part feature interview we went on a journey inside the mind of one of The FA’s most talented young coaches.
After a number of years working his way through the academies of Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur, Dan became Assistant Academy Manager at MK Dons. Working under Mike Dove (Academy Director), Dan was responsible for working with a number of players who have gone on to professional careers, including Dele Alli – a young man taking the Premier League by storm with Tottenham in season 2015/16 after learning his trade at MK Dons.
The son of Italian immigrants but born in England with an older brother and sister, Micciche grew up on a healthy diet of Italian football. A Juventus fan after being converted to the Roberto Baggio style during the 1990 World Cup, he initially worshipped Maradona, watching Napoli, his family’s hometown club: “My first real memory of football was the 1986 World Cup. I was a Napoli fan at the time; I followed Maradona and being in an Italian family meant we followed the Italian League (which at the time was a very strong one). There was no Sky TV in those days, so one of my cousins used to send me a 4-hour season review show each year on video.”
Micciche speaks of his evolution into a Baggio fan saying, “After this early period, I grew up watching AC Milan and Napoli. But in 1990 I really started to follow Roberto Baggio and as a result became a Juventus fan. My football culture came from watching European football. I used to visit Italy once or twice a year and watch the Milan Derby or the Rome Derby with my brother. These experiences shaped the lense through which I watch the game. The pace of the game then was slower but very technical and focused on controlling games with and without the ball. Watching on TV, the post-match show used to engage me as much as the game itself, it would go on until 1am in the morning and I loved watching and listening to the analysis of the matches.”
Family was a huge influence on Micciche’s development, both as a young football player and then as a coach. He was taught from a young age to “work hard to get educated”. He continues, “My Dad has 8 brothers and sisters, and my Mum has a huge family too. As a result, there are a lot of cousins and we’re very close. What I really remember growing up is playing with my brother’s mates, a lot of players who were bigger or older than me.” He speaks with energy about his childhood but is self-effacing about his own talents as a student. “I wasn’t great at school if I’m honest,” he says. “My parents didn’t speak much English growing up, we spoke Italian at home and they taught me about work ethic and making sacrifices to achieve in life. I had a private tutor two days a week to help with Maths and English.” And in terms of his time as a player, Dan explains, “I played a bit of football for the school team but could never play for the county as I went to Italian school twice a week while the games were on. I played a bit of Sunday League and non-league football but didn’t enjoy the physicality of the matches to be honest.”
Outside of school and playing football with family and friends, Micciche’s youth was scattered with trips to Italy to see family and take in football. This is where he learned a lot of his strong people skills. “Our family holidays were about getting back to Italy to see family which took me out of my comfort zone as this really tested my Italian as none of them spoke any English and I faced a lot of socializing with people older than me, particularly at meal times. One of the things with a lot of Italian families is that whatever age you are, you sit at the table with adults and you don’t get intimidated by those kind of ‘heated’ conversations,” he explains.
Micciche achieved highly in his education, securing a Masters in International Management and an MBA in Football from Loughborough and Liverpool Universities respectively. This led him to feeling like he would “go down the business route” after doing a sports science degree, also utilizing his new-found Spanish language skills. However, things changed as time went and he began feeling like perhaps there were “a number of people in the room who were more employable than me commercially” and that “modules like marketing, law and accounting perhaps weren’t for me”. As it turned out, many people in his Loughborough network headed towards the practical side of the game, with many of them currently at big clubs including Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea.
Dan explains how his route took him to the Crystal Palace Academy: “I had friends working in academies at that time and went in and had a look and just immediately thought, ‘I‘d quite like to do this, it could be suited to me!’ Paul Holder was at Crystal Palace at the time and a friend of mine knew him so he introduced me. I had my UEFA B license by then but not a lot of experience. When I went and saw Paul he gave me an opportunity which I will forever be grateful for. If I look back now I realise how little I knew, particularly about child development and the coaching process. On the upside I had no bad habits. I learnt on the job.”
“This observation opened my eyes to working on a ‘can do’ rather than a ‘can’t do’ basis and raising the bar high and being patient in terms of players succeeding.”
Dan had his own views on how the game should be played but says he didn’t go in with a view as to what coaching should look like. “I just had my ‘open’ personality,” he explains. “In terms of methodology I didn’t have a lot of idea. Paul Holder, a disciple of John Cartwright’s ‘out of the box’ thinking, opened my eyes to being imaginative with practice design and stretching the players. I remember working with the U10s and I asked if he could coach them so I could watch him work. He agreed and put them into a really tight space playing a 7 v 7 and worked on ‘passing into feet or space’. I said to him ‘these kids might struggle with this, they are only 9-years-old!’ However, he persisted. He spent the first five minutes just saying ‘unlucky’ and ‘nice try’, and waited for a player to do something well and said ‘show us all what you did there’. This demonstrated to me the power of coaching the positive and, of course, peers learning off each other.” He continues, “Within five minutes, the practice was too easy for them and he had to make it harder by making the boxes they were passing into even smaller. This observation opened my eyes to working on a ‘can do’ rather than a ‘can’t do’ basis and raising the bar high and being patient in terms of players succeeding. It’s good for players to earn success rather than giving it to them. In Paul’s eyes it they didn’t have to ‘get it’ today and it wasn’t about the session looking ‘good’ and ‘clean’. It was about supporting them on the way within an enjoyable and challenging learning environment.
Paul Holder is now the Head of Coaching at Brighton & Hove Albion. Brighton are a category one club with state of the art facilities and Paul has built a strong reputation in player development in England. Dan considers his time with Paul as “a fantastic education in terms of session design, managing ‘mistakes’ effectively and, of course, match day management.”
But Paul Holder wasn’t Micciche’s only influence at Crystal Palace. He also recalls the time spent with David Njie, with one story coming to mind about Dan’s first match day against West Ham: “I remember David coming over to me and saying ‘how’s it going?’ I replied with, ‘Oh we’re 4-0 down’ and he said, ‘No, I didn’t ask you that.’” To Dan, that was a “welcome to academy football” moment. “Results were secondary to individual performances and development.”
It was a 3 hour round trip to Palace, and so as a part-time member of staff all of Dan’s wages were spent on petrol. The tough logistics didn’t affect his enjoyment of the working environment, however. As Micciche got established at Palace, he got to see how the environment impacted on his own development. “It was great that we could try things on Sundays,” he says. “We would do things like put players on a minimum of 5 touches. Now, people might argue that’s unrealistic, but there was a reason behind it. We might have had players who were trying to play too quickly off 1 and 2 touch but didn’t have the technical and psychological skills to do it yet. We might try it with two players at a time so it didn’t become too much for the group at once or for specific individuals more than for others. We would play silent football for a period to help with awareness, or we would stand by the corner flag and observe without giving the players any information for the entire game. The group was being managed in a different way every week and this meant I was exposed to innovation very early on as I noticed we were doing things differently to others.”
Following his stint at Crystal Palace, Micciche made the move to Tottenham before his six-year spell at MK Dons. What kind of impact did those roles have on his development and what was his take on the academy system?
“Tottenham was very much technical coaching and a lot of Coerver style work under Ricardo Moniz at the time. They ‘scaffolded’ a bit more in terms of the learning.”
Micciche explains how his first move came about, “I was at Palace for just over a year before Paul went to the David Beckham Academy. The philosophy changed when he left – as you would expect when new people join any club – and I was used to his way of working so I had a choice to make because you have to completely buy into any ethos or you will be letting the club and players down. For me you have to make that choice. David Njie knew Chris Ramsey when both he and John McDermott were just starting out together at Spurs after Chris came back from America and suggested that Tottenham would be very progressive and forward thinking. After meeting Chris, we got on well and he offered me the U10s role. That was a challenge I had to adapt to. Palace was very game-based but Tottenham was very much technical coaching and a lot of Coerver style work under Ricardo Moniz at the time. They ‘scaffolded’ a bit more in terms of the learning. Looking back, the playing philosophy at Palace probably wasn’t that clear (particularly in the foundation phase), whereas at Tottenham it was all about total football, individuals expressing themselves and manipulating tactics to meet individual needs whilst keeping the identity and style.”
Micciche became more established at Spurs and found himself observing and working alongside Chris Ramsey, a man with an excellent reputation for bringing players through in England with a flamboyant style of coaching. Dan would watch Chris work and try to observe him whenever he could, even on his days and evenings off.
“Every Saturday he would be with the U16s and I would just pick his brains. The team he had at that time lost a lot of games. But within that team he had players like Andros Townsend, Stephen Caulker and Ryan Mason. Chris and John didn’t care, they just used the match day as an extension of training and there wasn’t any match preparation in a traditional sense.”
Micciche further outlines the individual focus at Spurs, explaining Chris’ use of a certain player (now a professional) as a centre back for three months. “I asked Chris, ‘Do you think he’s going to be a centre back? Why are you playing him there?’ He replied, ‘No, but he needs to work on his heading – it’s part of his program.’ He would sacrifice scoring or conceding goals and having one of his best midfielders playing out of position in order to help the player develop and help them towards a scholarship. Stephen Caulker was similar. Chris would make him run into midfield, force him to do it (in a very positive way) but encouraged him to try and then left him to it. I learnt an awful lot from him in terms of meeting the needs of individuals and having a fluid and exciting playing style. He also had a holistic approach and was the best I’ve seen at working with all age groups and manipulating his communication skills and expectations whilst still maintaining a highly enjoyable and challenging environment.”
Dan left Tottenham after two and a half years and headed to MK Dons. Mike Dove had been in contact with David Njie and, following a false start with a role with the U10s, Mike got in touch with Dan with another role taking the U12s but managing the U8-12 age group, “ with a bit of a blank canvas” as the Academy was only a year old. However, Dan felt comfortable at Tottenham, and felt initially that MK Dons wouldn’t give him the level of learning he had at Spurs.
In the end, it was Paul Holder who advised Dan to go to MK Dons, to ‘get his hands dirty’ and do some work outside of his comfort zone ‘at the reward end’. “Even Chris said ‘as a boss I don’t want you to go, but as your friend I think you need to go.’ So I left for MK Dons and it was key to me being where I am now.”
MK Dons is a new and progressive club in Buckinghamshire that has built a reputation as one that develops exciting individuals and provides a pathway into the first team
“…just remember that every situation you find yourself in that you’re working with someone else’s children”
As he departed, David Njie, a man Dan still rates as a close friend and inspirational mentor who he still speaks to most weeks, imparted some exceptionally good advice. Dan explains, “He said to me, ‘this is a great opportunity for you and just remember that every situation you find yourself in that you’re working with someone else’s children’ – that statement had a big impact and I keep it in mind all the time today.”
The four aforementioned men clearly had an impact on Micciche as mentors and he was fortunate to work with some top coaches in his formative years. Dan explains their impact on his own development as a coach, saying, “Paul was crucial in terms of practice and flexible and creative program design. Chris in terms of playing style and catering for individual needs, David on the psychosocial aspect of child development and having an observant eye – he’s got an excellent lens in terms of the technical detail. Mike is also a close friend and was more of an advisor or mentor in terms of dealing with football politics, managing obstacles and dealing with difficult situations or trying to influence people internally. He was always buying lots of different books on loads of topics from psychology to education and more. He was very well read and had a lot people skills and life experience, which helped me learn how to deal with different situations. He kept me extremely grounded and taught me how to live some important values like humility.”
As Dan progressed through the academy program from a part-time U10s coach in the early days to a full-time influential role at MK Dons with Mike, he faced many challenges as a coach had to learn what the challenges were for the players he worked with.
“Everything was a bit of a rush to get into 11 vs. 11 football, but it’s improved since then,” he says. “I think we could still give the players more variety. My personal belief is that a player shouldn’t just get to a certain age and play a certain format; I think you can have them playing all formats at all ages. This is a motivating factor for players and gives them different problems to solve. No two age groups and no two players are the same. I find it hard to write a ‘structured’ program anyway, let alone just saying ‘this is what an U12 program should look like.’”
Elaborating on the differences between any groups of individual players, he continues, “They might need to play 9 v 9 the whole year when they’re U13s. The number of games and variety of games could be better. Have we got the balance right? I’m not sure. While I was at MK Dons, Paul Holder came back from a tour of Spain and told me that Villarreal played approximately 120 games per season. Danny Collinge (who we sold to Stuttgart) said to me that the German clubs play 15 tournaments (indoors and outdoors) a season across the age groups. Even as a kid who plays a few of those, that’s still 7/8 tournaments per player and even at 4 games per tournament, that could be 30-35 games extra per season outside of normal games.”
Armed with knowledge of these ideas from Europe, Dan attempted to implement some of these approached at MK Dons. “We tried to play more matches than we trained,” he explains. “We would colour code the monthly calendar with different activities between training and matches. We would have every player’s name on a wall and their game experiences and schedule for the week and ideally that would be two games per week. The balance between winning and development is also a fine line. For me, it’s about the result more so than winning or losing but only in the sense that if you have a group who are losing 8–0 every week for six weeks straight, well that’s not a good place for them to be in mentally. Likewise if they are winning 8– 0 every week I would question if the players are being stretched enough individually and collectively.”
Micciche would manage those heavy results by pitching them against a midweek (occasionally weaker) opposition: “I knew they may have a close game or would win it, and this would help with their confidence and belief in the style. The goal swing is more important to the kids than the winning. We had an U16 group who could’ve won most weeks, but because we experimented a lot we drew a lot of games and the players could live with that because they were getting better and enjoying being challenged.”
An innovative approach to managing his players’ collective confidence seems to have been a formula for success at MK Dons. The devil is obviously in the detail. So what about Talent ID? It’s an aspect of player development that polarises opinion. Is it a patience game or is it a case of cut your losses if the player isn’t deemed ‘at the level’?
“It disappoints me when people say ‘he’s going to be the one!’ For me, you need the mindset they are all going to make it otherwise there is no point of them being in an academy.”
Dan explains, “I’m not a fan of trying to predict where kids are going to end up. It disappoints me when people say ‘he’s going to be the one!’ For me, you need the mindset they are all going to make it otherwise there is no point of them being in an academy. If you’ve seen a player ‘make it’ in the past, that’s irrelevant to the player you’re dealing with now – he’s a different person. Treat them equally whilst recognising they might not have equal talent, so ensure they get equal opportunity. Chris Ramsey was always big on this. He would call it a self-fulfilling prophecy and was very protective of the players – whether they were late developers or early developers they needed support and stretching just in different ways.”
“…if we have five games in a tournament and one boy never starts for fear of losing a game, why is he here? We’re wasting his time, his family’s time and letting him down.”
Micciche continues, “Take a player we sold to Liverpool. When I was working with him and another boy who perhaps isn’t quite at that player’s level, I might want them both to play two games a week but one’s might be slightly harder than the other player’s. For example, player X might play a fixture on a Wednesday against a grass roots team 2/3 years older whereas player Y might play against a team his own age. They still get the same amount of time to play and develop but the challenges are different. On the weekend, X might play up one year and the other player stays with his group. You’re giving them the same opportunity but a different challenge. If I give one player preference over another, I am setting the ‘lesser’ player up to fail. I am ‘working with someone else’s children’, they deserve the best from me. I’m not saying minutes should always be identical but if we have five games in a tournament and one boy never starts for fear of losing a game, why is he here? We’re wasting his time, his family’s time and letting him down.”
The academy system is now a structured, policed process where clubs are required to hit targets, meet requirements outlined by the EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan) and document everything about every player. What are some of the challenges in terms of assessment and learning objectives for every player?
“I think setting appropriate objectives are an art form. Sometimes I feel players are overloaded, for example I’ve seen players given up to five learning objectives for one game. Are they suitable? Sometimes five objectives might be enough for him to achieve in 5 years! If he can do those by the time he’s 16 he has done well! Sometimes it’s a case of putting too many things into a player’s head, or the wrong things into their heads that are not appropriate for them or realistic to achieve.”
One player who was a product of the MK Dons Academy who has made headlines and ‘rattled a few cages’ in the Premier League is Dele Alli. I was extremely interested to hear Dan speak of his development and the attributes that have got him to become the creative, Premier League player he is right now.
“…he could do things with a ball that I could only dream of doing! He was a street player really, with wonderful feet – very unpredictable, a maverick.”
Dan explains, “When I first started working with Dele at U12s, he could do things with a ball that I could only dream of doing! He was a street player really, with wonderful feet – very unpredictable, a maverick. You couldn’t be too structured with your sessions. It wasn’t about him not conforming to what you wanted; it was that it didn’t suit him. I remember a mistake I made with him where I set a condition that you had to score inside an end zone. Well, Dele went and scored an overhead kick from outside the area! I thought, ‘Blimey! I can’t disallow that!’ I should have said, you can score double points in the end zone but score from where you like. I needed to be more flexible as a coach to cater to him and his teammates.”
Dele Alli clearly showed potential at a young age like so many players, but he still needed a carefully thought-out development plan to nurture that potential. Micciche remembers that at age 12, Dele “had a fantastic appetite for the game and needed some support with things like when to dribble and when to pass and being a more effective team player. Dan’s solution was to section the pitch and say, “‘When we have the ball, go anywhere you like, when we don’t stay in the middle channel’ – giving him visual cues helped him appreciate his role in the team.” Dan also avoided ever restricting Dele’s touches in practices and matches. Instead he praised intent, celebrated all aspects of the game and not just the creative side and helped him to execute what he was attempting if it hadn’t worked, rather than giving him a different safer solution which would then restrict him using his imagination in future.
He remembers Alli as being a “big game player,” saying, “the bigger the challenge the more you got out of him. For example, he might turn up on a Thursday and there would be a team 3 years older waiting to play him and his teammates and I wouldn’t have told the players. He would love it! When we’d play the bigger clubs, he would shine. From a coaching point of view, this taught me that kids want a challenge for their own motivation.” He goes on, “They don’t want it to be easy, and they will get bored. Sometimes I would strategically go to games with ten players, or play 11 v 11 on a 60 x 40 pitch the next week and I found most of them responded to that variety.”
A lot of talk in player development is around relative age effect, bio banding and helping players that are late developers in the physical corner. Even in 2016 you still regularly hear those words ‘he won’t be big enough’. Dan explains that Dele was a late developer physically while in the U13/14 age group and so it became a bit more difficult for him.
“Playing on smaller pitches would suit his physical maturity and challenge his technique more and encourage more creativity in different ways – it meant switching play was possible and his pass would get there. Because he was good technically, he could be the best player on a small pitch, but away from home on a big pitch he (and his team mates) would have to adapt so we would do things like play a 4-6-0 with lots of midfielders and build up the pitch gradually or drop off deeper because we didn’t have the legs to press. Being flexible with them tactically was important for their development and helped them cope with challenges that the formats presented. This was important as we often see kids released because they are not effective in games. Instead we need to be patient and adjust our development programmes according to their needs.”
“As Dele got to U15 he played a lot of U16 football. We had him playing in a deep holding role in a 4-3-2-1 (we had lots of midfielders so the formation had to suit others too) at that point so he could get on the ball and he wouldn’t be pressed as much. If they did, he was able to deal with it through his good feet. I remember watching Clarence Seedorf in a game for AC Milan in that role and that’s what inspired the idea. As he got into the scholarship age bracket he started playing in Karl’s (Robinson) first team as he matured physically and tactically. Karl was an excellent influence on him. Dele played his entire first year professionally last year and scored 15 goals.”
In the next issue of Player Development Project magazine we’ll discuss Dan’s progress from MK Dons to The FA, what he does to create the optimum performance environment, discussing the topics of fear, player relationships, session design and his vision of England players in the future.
Cover Image: Dan Micciche, England U16 Head Coach. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty