Michael Beale has had the privilege of coaching some of the best young talent in England from the very beginning of their developmental journey. A UEFA A license holder with 10 years experience at Chelsea FC before making the move to Liverpool FC where he now manages the U21s, Michael gives us an in depth insight into player development at the highest level. We discuss his philosophy and seek his advice for developing coaches at all levels to create the best learning environments for your players.
About an hour south-west of London is the home ground of Aldershot Town F.C, known as the Recreation Ground. The following evening, this 7500 seat stadium is due to host a clash between two titanic clubs, Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC. However, this isn’t a fixture for the big-name signings and superstars of the Barclays Premier League, but an opportunity of some of the best young talent in England to shine in a match at the top of the Barclays U21 Premier League table.
Points are at stake, but the objectives of the coaches in this age group don’t strictly revolve around the scoreboard. This is the age where boys become men and the final touches are being put on the developmental journeys of tomorrow’s stars. These players are products of elite level training in some cases of well over a decade. Whatever your thoughts on the English academy system, there is no doubting the capabilities of some of these young players.
One of the men involved in this key stage of player development is Liverpool FC U21 Manager, Michael Beale. Beale is not only the manager of the Liverpool side for this fixture, a club he’s been working with for three years, but he is also the former academy coach of many of the players he will be facing tomorrow night, some of whom he has known since they were six or seven years old. Beale had a ten- year spell at Chelsea, the club where he really learnt his trade.
As we sit down and discuss all things player development, I note that Beale has a long track record of football in his family. He explains how he got into the industry: “Football was always a part of my life. Raymond Harford was my Nan’s cousin and he was an assistant to Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn and had his own successful career coaching at Wimbledon and Luton before that. My Godfather was a guy called Billy Gilbert and he was at Crystal Palace in the team of the 1980s. So, as young child I was getting taken to games from the age of two years old to watch Crystal Palace with my Godmother and Godfather”.
With so many mentors around him at a young age, I ask Michael to elaborate on his time as a player and how his coaching career came about so early.
“I started playing when I was five and then went into the academy at Charlton at age 10. I was in the same group as Scott Parker and Paul Konchesky, while Jermain Defoe was in the year below – we had a really good group. I stayed at the club until the age of 20 as a professional and it didn’t work out. From there I went to Holland and trialed at FC Twente and a few other clubs and didn’t get a result. After that, I was at a loss. I came back to England and was trialing at a Conference team when Damien Matthew [now first team coach at Charlton Athletic] offered me the chance to do some coaching with the development kids at Chelsea. I had just started a coaching company based on individual training with a heavy focus on futsal. I started with the U6s then moved on to the U9/10s and through the ages. I was lucky enough to coach a lot of the lads who have just won the U19s Champions League from the age of five or six. Damien was a huge influence; he is a top youth developer and a down to earth guy. My love for coaching overtook my love for playing, primarily because I really enjoy understanding what works for the individual player, getting inside their minds.”
Beale has worked at two major clubs in different areas of England – one in London, the other in the North West. He believes that these geographical differences are often displayed in the ways players express themselves on the pitch. “London has a great variety in terms of the type of person you will find,” he says. “Boys from Surrey are different from boys in inner London so you get a nice mix. You get a lovely style in London, there is a lot of talent in the area and it creates an interesting range of players and playing styles between clubs. In the North, there are fewer people moving into the area, so you have to be a lot more patient – and perhaps we persist better with players who come in at young ages. Jordan Ibe and Raheem Sterling are two players that Liverpool has persisted with from the age of 14.”
Beale came through the coach education pathway at a very young age, securing his FA Level 2 and UEFA B through the Kent FA in 2004. He explains that it was probably “a bit early” to do his UEFA A license as a 23-year-old but credits the course for helping him “grow up”. Since completing the course in 2006, he believes he has completely changed as a coach: “The coaching courses give you an idea of the process of coaching but it’s the people on the course and the people you surround yourself with are the ones who actually help you develop on your own education journey.”
Many of these people surrounded Michael during his ten-year period at Chelsea as an Academy Coach and Youth Development Officer. He tells me he feels “lucky” to have worked with people such as Dave Collins, “one of the leading sports psychologists in the UK.”
Michael explains how he and Collins worked at Chelsea: “We were very mindful of age bias and the family environment when it came to considering players. Did they have older brothers? What was their history of playing? At 7-9 years old, six months more playing experience than another player is huge, and it has to be taken into account when making decisions on players. We tried to get a balance across the year in our playing groups, which perhaps our club and a lot of other clubs hadn’t got right in the past. We would then look at players unopposed and opposed and would look for certain types of movers. At the time we would take a lot of players we would consider ‘wild cards’.”
It’s obvious when Michael discusses his time at Chelsea he is exceptionally fond of the place, speaking of characters like Bob Osborn who was a friend and mentor – known by many as ‘Mr. Chelsea’.
The transition from London to Liverpool was clearly a big one for Michael. He speaks fondly of his time at Chelsea but appears to be a real Liverpool man now and I almost pick up a hint of Merseyside in his South- East London accent as he discusses the key differences between the two clubs he’s worked at.
“Chelsea has a very clear idea of how they want to play. They are very aggressive in their style and unbelievably effective when it comes to recruitment – they have a lot of great people. However, they don’t necessarily have the pathway at the top and I hope that changes because people will then see the work they do in a different light. In Liverpool, the people of the city demand that young players come through.”
He goes on to explain, “There is a real focus at our club of working the individual. From a coaching point of view that means I almost had to go back to a style of coaching I would use with younger players in the past with our current U21s. Having the support of the first team manager is crucial, and we have that from Brendan Rodgers. At Chelsea the manager at the moment is under a lot of pressure to win, and Liverpool are putting pressure on the club to bring players through, so the moment you are at a particular club is important. Liverpool perhaps can’t spend as much money as Chelsea so we bring in players who are a bit older to help the younger ones that are good business decisions, but a lot of money is being spent on younger players.”
“We were very mindful of age bias and the family environment when it came to considering players. Did they have older brothers? What was their history of playing?”
Given the amount of discussion in English football recently about the huge challenges around the professional development phase, this is obviously something that affects Michael. However, he describes the relationship between the Liverpool U21s and first team as being “great”, and puts this largely down to the background of manager Brendan Rodgers, who “loves developing players”, and the work of first team assistant coach Mike Marsh and academy director Alex Inglethorpe. This gives Liverpool a “family feel” according to Michael, which he describes as “a unique environment”.
With the implantation of the Elite Player Performance Plan in England, the academy environment has evolved, but I wonder whether it’s for the better and whether clubs are now developing a different type of player from the stereotypical English player of years gone by?
“We’ve got a real issue in England where we undersell ourselves,” he responds. “We have a great amount
of talent in the age group of 17-21 but they cannot break through. I believe we’ve seen evidence in the last few years of that when we’ve seen young English players break through into the Premier League and they haven’t failed. Look at the players coming through at Southampton, look at Raheem and Jordan, there are players in the Chelsea setup who are winning age group European titles.”
Beale lays some of the blame at the door of the owners: “The Premier League has got so big now that it’s
the ‘World League’. It really isn’t any owner’s priority at to worry about English players, because they want to win titles. The Premier League changed in the mid-1990s when the superstars began arriving from overseas, and I don’t think something like the Bundesliga – where most players are from Germany – would now be an easy sell here in England. It’s a tough situation but we have to keep trying to give young players opportunities.”
“We’ve got a real issue in England where we undersell ourselves. We have a great amount of talent in the age group of 17-21 but they cannot break through.”
Beale elaborates on the types of players being developed in England. “Each club is very different. It should be that way too, clubs are developing players for their first team, so they should be unique. There’s no right way to play but I do applaud The FA for releasing the ‘English DNA’ and making a statement where a style of play is being promoted. A lot of clubs have gone without a philosophy for years, whereas Ajax and Barcelona have had philosophies for a long, long time. In England I feel clubs are really only starting to establish strong philosophies. We are making progress but while we are, no one else around the world is sitting around waiting for us to catch up.”
The conversation veers away from the top level and towards the training pitch. As a developing coach myself I am interested in how Michael caters for the different psychological needs of his players within his session design?
“That’s a great question. All of our players have regular review meetings and they do work individually with the analysts and extra staff on the training pitch. At the start of a session we will look at what our technical outcomes for the group are and pick three or four players within the group to focus on for that day. It might be that we want a boy to press more or be more aggressive, for example. In that case, one coach will be assigned to just work with that player and push him on his task. He will count the player’s scores in that area and in breaks continue to talk to him about it. We will put players in positions where they may feel uncomfortable. We often talk to our players about being a good ‘sparring partner’. If a boy needs to work on his 1 v 1 defending, we will put him up against lots of different types of players and, at times, he will break. However, if he doesn’t break in training we won’t know how far he will go in a game.”
Michael is keen to offer advice for grassroots coaches and parents in terms of creating a positive learning environment. “Don’t steer too far away from the game,” he says. “A lot of coaches become ‘drill based’ from doing courses, or they get caught up with Mourinho’s innovations or Guardiola’s latest sessions on YouTube. Instead, make sure your session is about the game and always comes back to what your player needs now. Give your information in bite-sized chunks and make it about the individual. It should always be about attacking and defending the goals and always include lots of 1 v 1s. Within that you can develop them physically, you can develop winning mentality and you can make it fun.”
“When it comes to grassroots coaching,” Beale continues, “If I were advising a grassroots parent who is taking the team, I would say you can play a game and encourage one/ twos and combinations. You can play a game and make it a 1 v 1 game by encouraging man-marking. By conditioning games, players get lots of game-based learning. If our kids are now not out on the streets or in the playground playing as much as we like, then make sure for the one or two sessions you coach them each week they get lots of games. Finally,” he adds, “I would say you have to have a personality to inspire, you have to make a connection with your players and ensure they’re smiling at training.”
I reflect on the fact that Beale has mentioned the word ‘fun’ a few times in our conversation to date. It is a breath of fresh air to see a young English coach including this as a key part of his coaching arsenal at professional level. Much of our research at Cruyff Football Player Development Project points to our philosophy of ‘who we are is how we play’ – how culture can effect playing style and mindset.
Michael agrees: “I have worked with players who might be technically very good but not push themselves as hard as a boy from another background who is less talented. In the North, players are a little subservient when perhaps they could be more aggressive and confident. In inner London, you will find lads who are very creative and who you have to win over. Then you see boys from Holland who can talk to you like a coach by the time they are 17 or 18, and others from Spain who love doing lots of technical repetition.”
The conversation turns to the controversial topic of player recruitment, or ‘Talent ID’ as it is often known. Are clubs getting in right in 2015 and what would Beale change? “I think players are coming into the academy game way too early and with all due respect I believe not all of the people choosing players at that age are experts because the real experts head towards the top level of the game primarily because they need to earn a living,” he begins. “The people working as part-time scouts are making very important decisions but are not necessarily the most educated or qualified people to be doing it.” I ask him how he would do things differently. “I think ideally, players would come in and train in the environment at nine and play more formally at 11,” he replies. “I think the problem in England is the game has grown so big that while it was growing, clear foundations weren’t being put in place. Schools and local clubs should be able to run lots of tournaments and game days without the players being under pressure.”
As we discuss the recruitment of talent and the fact Michael works for a club with a good percentage of English players in the first team relative to their Premier League rivals it becomes clear that Michael believes this is an obligation of clubs at this level. “I think clubs are missing a trick if they don’t deliver English prospects,” he tells me. “It’s what the fans want and it is something that adds to a feel good factor around a club. The fans want local products in their team. That’s why John Terry is revered at Chelsea and the same with Steven Gerrard at Liverpool – they are local boys.”
Beale goes on to suggest that the rules in the lower leagues need tightening, saying that “perhaps League 1 and 2 are for English players only. I worry if we don’t make change we won’t give our kids a chance. Outside the top four or five clubs in places like Spain, Germany, Italy or France, most of their players are from the nations in question.”
Although working at a club which is regarded as being good at bringing English talent through, Michael is keen not to put any pressure on his young players by discussing their prospects in detail. He’s happy to name some of the talents at the club, but is always making sure to keep them grounded: “Jordan Rossiter is a boy that is getting a lot of attention. He has been at the club since he was six and made his first-team debut this year alongside Jordan Williams. Players such as Jerome Sinclair [who is the youngest ever to play for Liverpool], Ryan Kent, Harry Wilson, Cameron Brannigan, Sergi Canos, Seyi Ojo are all talented players, but they have a long way to go. Jordan Ibe is only six months older and his career is only just beginning.”
“To keep players feet on the ground, we make a note of what we call the ‘start point’ of a career – usually a starting match for the first team in a meaningful fixture. Jordan Ibe got his start point in the derby match against Everton. The talent is there for players in this group to come through, and although it’s always hard to say what will happen, I do know that our manager wants to bring players through.”
And these opportunities are what Beale believes is the key reason as to why some players ‘make it’ to the first team and others don’t. “You can talk about the kid having ‘mental stamina’ or technical ability, but more than that it’s about who is willing to give the player a chance.”
At Player Development Project we promote the value in having mentors. Beale has earlier alluded
to Liverpool being a family club. He elaborates on some of the “amazing” mentors that play a regular part in his players’ development. “I’m lucky that I work alongside Steve McManaman who is a very humble
guy and achieved great things at the highest level at Real Madrid and is a Liverpool legend. Robbie Fowler also gives up his time to help us develop our players and is not only a legend at club known as GOD but is also a commercially savvy guy – he offers advice on property investment along with his unique insight into goalscoring. Rob Jones is a great mentor too – he is a successful businessman in his own right. He suffered a career ending injury at the height of his career, he has a wealth of experience to share with the players. Fabrice Muamba came in to talk to us recently and has helped us out. He will be a successful coach and get something out of players because of his amazing personality. He has the ability to make people smile and too often in the game these days I see players who aren’t smiling enough at a young age. Perhaps it’s because they are not playing the game, it’s being taught to them – that’s flawed.”
The discussion heads towards education. In issue 1 of Player Development Project magazine we published an in depth piece around education and the emphasis the DFB in Germany places on developing
the person, not just the footballer. What educational programmes does Liverpool FC have in place for their young players? “We have a few boys doing their A-Levels to continue their school education. The majority of the players take a BTEC course and we also put on a program called Life Skills, which ranges from domestic teachings through to basic mechanics. The boys regularly visit Alder Hey Hospital, they go down to homeless shelters and we do a lot of outstanding work to keep them grounded. I believe what we offer is as good as any club in the country. All the scholar players are also doing their gym training certificates and will get their Level 2 and UEFA B coaching badge. We offer Spanish lessons and a number of players take that up because many of them dream of playing abroad.”
This is encouraged by the club. “We give the players encouragement to do as much as they can and have taken players overseas to places like Indonesia where they have done charity work,” Michael says. “We also have good relationships with Universities in America where players who may not have made it here have gone off to do their studies and play in the USA.”
It appears that Liverpool FC are delivering on the idea Beale promotes of a family club. With good support and mentors of those quality, their developing players have some serious expertise to call on. Following on from our earlier conversation around clubs developing philosophies in England, I ask Beale to reveal a bit about his coaching style and the Liverpool philosophy.
“I use a lot of Q and A and ‘guidance on the run’. I try to avoid using ‘stop and stand still’. I learnt a lot of that early on at Chelsea but now I focus on setting up sessions where they get gameplay. I like allowing players to express themselves. More than anything I love building relationships with my players one to one. Over time I have found coaching courses are often very unrealistic because the connection between the players you’re working with is non-existent. Coaching has to be about the connection you have with your players.”
Beale continues, going into detail about what Liverpool focuses on. “At Liverpool we have a historic style of play around pass and move, so we often say to observers come for a week, not a day as you will see that style in different ways over the time you watch. The Liverpool philosophy is about taking your best players to the next challenge. We have a real focus on outplaying opponents 1 v 1 and not being outplayed 1 v 1. We have some players who might be excellent at passing so we need to ensure they are excellent at receiving to outplay the opposition with passing. We might have another player who is a good runner so we will work with him on the right moments to run. We want players to know how they are match winners and help them find as many solutions as possible to problems they face in the game.”
Beale strikes me as a man enjoying his current position and without a doubt he cares about his players. This is demonstrated when halfway through our interview he halts proceedings to ensure his young player Jerome Sinclair (who has just joined the team late due to a meeting with the first team manager) gets a meal. I wonder, what are his long-term ambitions in football? “They’ve changed. I came into it wanting to be a first team manager. As a young English coach I wonder if that’s realistic? I enjoy working with elite players, with foreign players and I believe at 34 I am probably in this job far too early. I won’t really judge where I’m at until I’m 40. I love my job but know I am not ready to go on to be a manager. I feel I’m in a great place with an excellent team of staff, and with most of my players 17 or 18 years old I’d love to see them though until they are 21. I would also one day like to work abroad, but right now I am very happy being the U21s manager at Liverpool FC.”
It appears in Michael Beale, Liverpool FC have a man with strong beliefs, a passion for player development and someone who has learned a lot of lessons from some good people at a young age. It will be interesting to see which players from Beale’s group break through into the Liverpool first team or other clubs’ squads in the coming seasons. Having spent a couple of hours with the man at the helm of the Liverpool U21 group, I have no doubt that whichever of his players make it, they’ve had a great opportunity afforded to them under his and
his staff’s guidance. For the record, Liverpool lost to Chelsea 4–3 at the Recreation Ground on the night, but I doubt Beale was as worried about the score as he was his players’ individual performance and progress. Whichever players do cross the white line and go on to have successful professional careers, I’m sure Michael Beale will be in the background, quietly celebrating his protégés fulfilling their potential.