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Dan Senda: Flying Under the Radar

Dan Senda is an example of someone who has always worked exceptionally hard for everything he has achieved. Desire and determination are traits that you easily identify in the man when you spend time with him. He hasn’t played in a World Cup, and he hasn’t played in the Champions League, but he personifies classic British hard-graft. What Dan Senda has done in his time in football is persist, and with that he’s managed to achieve what few do – sustain a long career as a professional player.

 

Senda moved between League 1 and 2 in a 16-year career that began at Wycombe Wanderers in 1998. After three years at iconic London club Millwall FC, Senda moved around the English game until he eventually retired due to persistent injuries just before his 32nd birthday. When he explains how he left the game, it’s clear to see that the decision was made for him.

“It came about after a four-year slide due to injury. I picked up my first injury in 2008 when I was 28 years old playing at Millwall. Prior to that I’d never really been injured for more than a couple of weeks. That injury took 14 months to get over, so I started to think about the next stage of my career. I didn’t want to just hang on and eek out a career. I made the decision to get out and make the transition, which is tough for all players to make. I think because I had that period it wasn’t a sudden shock where I couldn’t play anymore which made it easier to deal with. I’d always been told by senior pros around me, ‘you’ll know when it’s just time’, and I did.”

Naturally, a lot of players who want to remain in the game after playing for so long and will take a job with a senior team, assume they are entitled to go into management straight away or understandably work their contacts to get them a job which will provide security for their family. The world of playing professional sport makes coaching look as stable as a degree in accounting and a nice secure job with a multi-national company. Being a football player is by nature exceptionally fickle and an individual’s value can be decided on at the whim of a manager or board, so longevity is an attribute to be admired in the game.

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It’s what Senda has done since retirement that has captured our attention. Dan has kept a relatively low profile and gone about his business quietly as he looks to learn a new craft – the art of coaching. With his playing days done but decades of learning in the bank in terms of game understanding, Senda has taken the unique approach of doing his apprenticeship working with very young players as a coach at Brentford FC within the club’s highly rated, category two academy. We asked Dan to explain his decision to begin working with pre-academy and foundation phase aged players (5–12) and why he didn’t just go straight back into senior football.

“The decision was simple. I see so many ex-players come out the game after a good career who get an opportunity with limited coaching experience. Even if you do some education as a coach whilst playing, you’re not immersed it. Because I’ve seen many coaches take that path and fail, I decided I really wanted to learn my trade. I feel it’s important you work out how to be a coach, how to deal with groups, how to deal with individuals, and there is no more challenging environment than working with young players. It’s not the traditional route in England.” Senda continues, “It’s perhaps a bit more common place on the continent to go into academy football and work your way through the age groups with a long-term view to becoming a manager. I think that stands those managers in good stead and is perhaps a reason why we have so many foreign managers in England whereas the English managers seem to be in the lower leagues.”

With good reason for his approach and a hunger to learn, I asked Dan about his initial experiences in the intense world of academy football and what he made of his first year in the environment and what he thought of the newly implemented, EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan) in England?

Senda explains, “The EPPP is a step forward, but I believe there are elements that restrict coaching. There is a lot of paper work and red tape. The U21s development scheme seems to be diluted with players who are coming through that perhaps don’t have the quality to make it as professionals, which is a worry.”

 

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It’s well documented that the U21 age group and the professional development phase in English football is one of the more challenging areas at present. It is somewhat of a black hole, with many players disappearing before they’ve had a chance, or alternatively not being allowed enough time to develop due to age restrictions. This, combined with the lack of proper regular competition, means there are challenges that need to be addressed.

In regard to his time at the Championship club so far and what he’s seen from other clubs, Dan explains, “There are a lot of positives from what I have seen at my time at Brentford FC so far. The syllabus at the club is very strong. The DNA is there, the players have to know it and it’s obvious in the way the club plays. I like the way Fulham go about their business too; the way they coach their players and the variety of players they have. The fact they are tournament based and play a lot of that type of football stands their players in good stead in regard to the competitive side of the game.”

“I was very fortunate to be at Southampton. Looking back on it now, they were very forward thinking.”

Having come through as a player at Southampton’s famous academy in the 1990s, being signed aged 13, Dan is eager to talk about what’s made their club so unique in terms of player development: “I was very fortunate to be at Southampton. Looking back on it now, they were very forward thinking. We played futsal once a week, which some clubs today still don’t do, we were heavily technique based and going through the ranks there to being an apprentice, there was a clear style of play. I think what they were doing back then in the 1990s has set them up for the players that have come through more recently.”

The difference in the world of academy football in 2015 is significant but the biggest change in Senda’s view is regarding the amount of resource players are provided with. Senda explains, “Players get everything now – video analysis, they have an Academy Director implementing a syllabus, they have monthly topics which are broken down. Fine details are tailored to their development to reach their potential.” It’s a lot different to what Senda experienced but one factor that Senda recalls at Southampton as crucial in player development was play, explaining, “When I came through, one real positive was the amount of game based training.”

As a former professional player, Dan clearly has a lot of experience but as a young coach currently working on his UEFA B diploma and having completed the FA Youth Award Level 1 & 2 courses, what lessons has he taken in his journey so far?

“The biggest lesson to date has been to strive to continue to learn. The game is evolving so quickly now and players are evolving rapidly too. You can’t rest on your laurels and think any kind of playing career is going to set you up as a coach. The environment I find myself in now means there is always something new to learn, or a new way of doing things. Long term, I make no secret about it – I do want to be back in a senior environment and would like to be a manager. Many people have advised me not to say that publicly. However, I believe having a clear goal and working towards that is crucial.”

So with a desire to develop and work towards his goal of eventually becoming a senior manager, who has been influential on Dan as a mentor and in terms of managerial styles so far?

“Ken Jackett was also a big influence on me as well. He made me understand that football is a business and there are certain ways to go about things.”

“As a young player, there wasn’t anyone more important than my Dad. He was someone I could vent to or ask questions of at any time.” Senda continues, “At the back end of my time at Wycombe Wanderers, John Gorman was there. He was a huge influence on me. He made me understand what I was good at, where I was weak and where I can improve. He was honest and showed me how a manager can help your game just by being kind and showing a bit of confidence and belief. Ken Jackett was also a big influence on me as well. He made me understand that football is a business and there are certain ways to go about things. Lawrie Sanchez was also significant in my career. He handed me my debut, but was a bit different in his style. At the time, I was young and thought I knew more than I did, so we clashed a lot at Wycombe in the early days. As it happened, both of us ended up working together a long time later at Barnet. I had grown up, he had mellowed and we had a good relationship. It was short, but we both respected each other and we finished on good terms.”

So going forward does Senda look at any styles he’s worked under and want to emulate them? “At this stage, my style is constantly evolving. I want to be my own manager, I want to be strong in my philosophy but I am open to influences. The aforementioned names were certainly good mentors to add value to my coaching style as it develops.”

“I wouldn’t want to spend all my time giving kids freedom to play and then as soon as they become adults, put the shackles on them.”

As the conversation flows, we get on to the topic of the challenges of coaching young players versus professional or senior players. What are the key differences and would Dan change his style depending on the age of the players he had under his guidance?

“I wouldn’t really. I like to be honest with all my players regardless of age. I think they enjoy it and feel I have had success by talking to players honestly and respecting them. I have been in senior environments where managers have been condescending and like headmasters. Treat people with respect, treat them like adults and let them play. I wouldn’t want to spend all my time giving kids freedom to play and then as soon as they become adults, put the shackles on them.”

So with a playing career spanning 439 games behind him, did he feel he reached a point where learning became tougher or was it a constant evolution? “My development as a player accelerated between 26 and 30 because I had knowledge of the game and could take more on. Respect for the learning process is important – I think the same applies in coaching, you have to continue to learn”

His response speaks volumes for the idea of giving players time to develop. Whilst not every footballer will be a professional, what attributes does Dan believe are most important in a player maximising their potential? He explains, “The most important is mentality. I think this gets neglected. A lot of players develop quickly technically but if they don’t have a tough mentality they can fail. Technique is of course important and much important than team play at a young age. You can teach that later in a player’s development. If you have a good technical base and a strong mentality you will go a long way to realising your potential.”

Having been involved in English football his entire life, and England being a country which criticises itself at times, what particular attributes does he believe English players have?

Senda is swift in his response, “They have every attribute any other player in the world has in my honest opinion, and at times, perhaps better. Where we fall down is in our decision-making. For too long we have had a ‘tell’ culture. Coaches would say, ‘you will do it my way’. Traditionally the England U21s are very strong but then when they get to senior level they fail. They seem to be shackled at senior level and fail under a command style. Perhaps other nations allow more freedom. I think development tends to stop when players get given a pro contract and that is just wrong.”

Senda makes a great point. When the motivation becomes extrinsic, then the reason for playing is entirely different and can drastically affect how a player develops. Now that he is working with some of the top talent in England, many of who may go on to play in League 1 & 2 just as he did. I ask Dan about the playing style within the Football League and if he believes a new style of player is emerging in England?

Senda explains, “Gone are the days where I played in League 1 where you had Gillingham, Stoke City, Manchester City where it was just ‘land of the giants’ – huge men with a limited technical base.”

He continues, “Now I think the influx of foreign players in the Premier League and Championship means a lot of the good young English talent is filtering down into League 1 and 2. The teams that play more attractive, possession based football tend to be the ones that get out of those divisions now, whereas in the past, perhaps the teams that were very ‘back to front’, very organised, and very physical would get promotion. There definitely appears to be a more technical player at a lower level with a better understanding of the game.”

Many of his young charges will not even realise that when they’re working with Dan Senda, they are working with a man who has achieved the goals that they are all trying so hard to get to themselves…

Now working across age groups from the pre academy boys, U13/14 players and also in the clubs College Program, it appears that Brentford FC may have stumbled upon a hidden gem. In Dan Senda, they have a humble man who always coaches with a smile on his face and maintains a calm demeanour. Senda is motivated by his own desire to learn and an affection for helping young players in their quest to go beyond what he achieved as a player. Many of his young charges will not even realise that when they’re working with Dan Senda, they are working with a man who has achieved the goals that they are all trying so hard to get to themselves – the dream of a career in the beautiful game. Despite this blissful ignorance, it appears these young footballers have a mentor that in due time, they will realise had a positive impact on their own player development.

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