The road to success in football is not always straightforward. Now regarded a Premier League stalwart, West Bromwich Albion were a club once derided as the ‘Boing Boing Baggies’ for their succession of relegations and promotions in the early 2000s. Now a stable club under the guidance of Tony Pulis, the club’s academy are producing some exciting young footballers. PDP Editor, Dave Wright spoke to Jimmy Shan, the Under-21 coach at The Hawthorns, about his career and got an insider’s look at the WBA Academy.
Unlike the Baggies’ years as a yo-yo club, success for Shan came following a steady climb through the coaching ranks from relatively humble beginnings. After first getting into coaching aged 17, Shan would work on building sites and install air conditioning to get by before getting his break at Birmingham City FC. He progressed quickly at the Blues and within six months was in the academy taking the under-12s on a part-time basis. Eighteen months later he was full-time and in charge of the U9-U16 age group. After four years at Birmingham, Jimmy moved to West Bromwich Albion to manage the U12-U16s.
We caught up with Jimmy to find out about his coaching philosophies and how West Bromwich Albion go about developing their young footballers.
PDP: What drove you to pursue coaching?
JS: Essentially I fell into coaching by accident but learned very quickly how much I loved it!
PDP: What aspect of coaching do you love the most?
JS: I love the technical and tactical side of the game. As I’ve developed as a coach I’ve been more led to develop players’ tactical understanding of the game and I get a real buzz out of match days, taking on different coaches, working against different formations and working on that tactical battle. That’s been something that I’ve focused on as I have progressed.
PDP: Having spent over a decade working with U9–16 players, can you give us an idea of your development philosophy?
JS: I feel fortunate that when I came to WBA the club had a very clear ‘DNA’ that works nicely with the style I like to play. That DNA was around producing the individual. We focus heavily on playing out through the back, playing through the thirds, exposing players to lots of contact with the ball. I like my teams to manage and dominate possession, to adopt a mindset of creating as many chances as possible and score goals, because that’s what the game is about. The club really tries to produce a well-rounded gifted footballer as opposed to a position-specific footballer. I believe you have to equip each player with as many tools as you possibly can and then from there, see how good they are at using those tools – this dictates where they play on the pitch.
PDP: Has your philosophy always been in line with the clubs you’ve worked at?
JS: I’ve been fortunate to be at Birmingham who had a strong philosophy and that helped shape my personal philosophy. I have always been a fan of the game being played in a positive way, so while Birmingham helped shape it, West Bromwich sold me a vision of playing the game within a philosophy that works hand-in-hand with what I believe. It’s been nice to work at two clubs that fit in with what I believe.
PDP: England is often criticised and critical of itself in terms of player development. Can you give us some positives that you currently see first hand happening in the development of football players in this country?
JS: I think if I rewind 10 years and look at how we went in Europe on tour and played teams like Ajax or big European clubs, I have to be honest – technically we were miles behind. But more recently, when I have been abroad with teams from U14 upwards, we have competed and I think the technical aspect of the game is a much more level playing field now with our European neighbours. There’s a lot of good work going on at football clubs in England, and with the advent of the EPPP and the inclusion of more contact time and better access to players, it bodes well. Technically I think we’re at a point where we’re producing some outstanding players.
PDP: Do you think this is happening at all levels?
JS: At grassroots level, I haven’t seen a lot. I take my son to a coaching school on the weekend but aside from that haven’t seen much. However, I do remember one Sunday morning when we were driving to his coaching school, he needed the toilet so we stopped in a recreation centre and there was some training happening and I was horrified with what I saw. The people around grassroots football can be concerning. On this occasion you had a classic volunteer manager and parents all yelling ‘get rid of it’ or ‘pass the ball’. It was blatantly obvious that everyone on the side of that pitch was more concerned about winning than player development. So I guess if that view is representative of what’s happening, it is concerning, and disappointing. However, I have worked in schools and development centres in years gone by and there are plenty of people in the game at that level delivering good work, but I can only answer that question on that one example.
PDP: What is the philosophy of the WBA Academy and how much emphasis is placed on the result of matches?
JS: No emphasis at all. We have a games program with the U9-U16s on the weekend and then the older players play during the week. We email correspondence between coaches about the results but nothing is ever discussed about results. Although once you get to U16 and above, you do have to think about winning culture. Despite our lack of focus on the actual result we do want to promote a winning mentality across the ages, and so I think it’s important that players and coaches want to win and are taught how to win at the right stage in their development. However, performance is the biggest focus. We will take a good performance in a loss over a win just for results sake. I still think that winning focus is still too prevalent in England at times when it should be more about performance, but not at West Bromwich Albion.
The club was one of the first in the country to implement a technical director, which at the time was very forward thinking. We’ve been working under that model for at least six or seven years and that has very much meant we have a whole club philosophy.
PDP: What would your advice be to grassroots or developing coaches about how to best allow their players to develop creativity?
JS: It’s about striking a fine balance. I’ve been on a lot of FA courses and have raised debate on those courses. A lot of people believe, ‘let the game be the teacher’. I’m not 100% convinced by that and I think it’s about finding a balance of recognising when to teach and when to give good information and technical detail and recognising when to let the players play and make decisions.
The simplest way to look at it from a grassroots point of view, I would use the traffic light idea. Divide your pitch into thirds: red, amber, green. In the final third, the green third, allow as much freedom as you can – it’s high-risk, high reward. The back third is low-risk football – manage the ball, try and play but be clever. In the middle third, manage the tempo and try to play forward. This is a simple way of looking at appropriate times to intervene.
PDP: A lot has been made in the media about the lack of educated coaches in England compared to countries like Spain and Germany. Do you think the statistics tell the truth and what are your views on coach education in England?
JS: I have to say from my experience I think the coach education in England is in a good place and has evolved massively in the last few years. Obviously it could be seen as bias, but Dan Ashworth who was the technical director at WBA is now in charge of that at The FA – he has done a fantastic job. Personally, I’ve done an awful lot of coach education in England in the last few years. I’ve done the youth modules, just finished the Advanced Youth Module and am on the Professional Coaching Award now. I see lots of Spanish or Dutch coaches coming to England to do courses so we must be doing something right if coaches from these countries are coming to England to get qualified. I think coaches are improving all the time and I think that’s reflected in our players. In the last 10 years players have improved massively in a technical sense and I think that’s a byproduct of good coaching.
PDP: Who is the footballing definition of creativity to you and why?
JS: Messi is the obvious one for me. I think he plays with a freedom and expression that means he can conjure something from absolutely nothing. A lot of what he does seems to be instinctive and doesn’t require a lot of thinking time. You can look at what creativity is in a number of ways: you can break it down to dribbling and running with the ball, receiving, or passing to break lines. But I think the creative side of the game is where players seem to do things instinctively without having to think.
PDP: Do you believe that a player’s culture or environment has a direct impact on their playing style?
JS: Massively. If a player is working with an academy system or grassroots club then it can be a rigid environment where decisions are made for them or playing styles are dictated. This kind of environment can produce a certain type of player. You look at players that have come through environments where they have a freedom to make decisions, they work in a positive environment where they might have objectives to achieve certain targets but are allowed freedom and a balance is struck by coaches then that will allow creativity to develop.
PDP: You’ve gone from working with foundation phase players (6-12) to working in the professional development phase (17-21). What are the key differences in how you coach across the age groups?
JS: In the younger phase I think you have to be able to hone players technically. I don’t see enough technical coaching in that age group. As you get to 12 and above you can start touching on team play and cohesion, and then moving up the age groups you have to marry up the technical teaching and tactical teaching and produce a team with a winning mentality, encourage understanding of game management, particularly after the age of 16.
PDP: What advice do you have for coaches who may struggle to get through to a challenging personality within their playing group?
JS: I think you’ve got to try and find a way of forming a relationship with that player and be a bit clever or cute around those struggles. If I have come across a player who is struggling, it might be about utilising moments between sessions – or during the walk out to the pitch or breaks in play – or getting to know what they like to work on and doing some extra work with them on that. If it was an issue with not understanding the player’s learning style, then we are fortunate to have a sports psychologist at WBA where coaches are given a breakdown of what learning styles individuals respond to, and what ticks their boxes in terms of understanding.
PDP: What are your personal views on talent identification in England? Are we getting it right and would you change anything in the process of players going from clubs to academies?
JS: I think it’s improving all the time and I think when you look back over the last 10 years we have gone through lots of trends. Their have been patterns develop as the academy system has developed. For a while it was small technical players, in between it’s been pace and power because that’s what the Premier League had a lot of. I think the balance is getting better and we are getting a nice mix of players through talent ID. Recruiters and scouts seem to be getting better at not just looking at the here and now, but also at what a player could be in a year or two with patience. At West Bromwich we also run a ‘late birthday’ project where young players in local leagues are taken into account so they don’t get eliminated based on their date of birth. It’s important to not just look at the big early developer as a stand out. I don’t necessarily agree with players coming in so young, but it’s unfortunately the reality of the business side of the game. If we don’t bring them in, someone else will – I don’t think I have the answer to it, but perhaps a couple hours a week coaching and an affiliation with an academy whilst being left alone to develop with their friends and just play would be better. So no, I don’t think we’ve got it right.
PDP: What initiatives does West Bromwich Albion have to support community football and coach development?
JS: We work closely with our foundation – a scheme that tends to do a lot of grassroots work. They do coach education at grassroots with local clubs. From an academy point of view we have some fantastic facilities including an indoor dome and full size 4G pitch. These facilities get used by local clubs – particularly if we know there is a weekend of poor weather, when our equipment officer, Steve Upcross, will phone around and make them available if possible. We have strong links with local clubs in that respect and we have also had local clubs come in and watch academy sessions. If we can help improve coaching at grassroots we believe we’re helping the academy.
PDP: Who are the most exciting players to watch at WBA at present?
JS: In the older age groups we have two Pakistani brothers, Adil (21) and Samir Nabi (18) who have both been at the football club since they were eight years old. We have just triggered the one-year clause in Adil’s contract and hope to get him out on loan to get him some experience so he can be a part of the first-team where he has featured on the bench already against Manchester City.
We have a number of players who have great potential. We have a young working group in next years U21s – my team will be predominantly made up of U18s and U19s and I think a lot of clubs are going down that path now. The two that have been attracting a lot of attention so far have been Jonathon Leko and Tyler Roberts. Both of those players play internationally in their age groups with England and Wales respectively. We’re very excited about the potential in our age group teams.
PDP: What are your long-term ambitions in football coaching?
JS: I’d like to progress to work at first-team level. I’ve been working at youth development level for 13 years. Nine years ago I was working with the U11s at West Bromwich and now I am with the U21s. With my personal career plan, it’s always been to progress. Now I have had exposure to the U21s, I would love a shot in a few years at first team level as an Assistant Manager or Manager.
Jimmy Shan. West Bromwich Albion v Stoke City – Barclays U21 Premier League. Photo: By Matthew Ashton – AMA