A Different Kind of Success

Paul Grech Sunday, December 22, 2013 , , ,
Fifteen years ago, one of the finest British players of his generation made his professional debut.  The story goes that Gerard Houllier went to watch Liverpool’s U18 team played and promptly picked a scrawny teenager by the name of Steven Gerrard as someone he wanted to put into his first team.

Put that way, Gerrard’s selection might seem fortuitous but people within the game had long predicted that he was going to be quite a player.

“We’re all aware of how many games he [Gerrard] has taken by the scruff of the neck in his career.  Well, he was doing that from an early age.   Technically his ability was second to none but probably what separates players like him from the rest is that they've got the drive and inner determination to go on where they want to go.”

So says Mike Yates who knows something about Gerrard having grown up playing alongside him in Liverpool’s youth teams.

The full article and interview can be read on Blueprint for Football.

No Benefit in early Focus on Physical Side of Players

He might not have joined the club in the easiest of periods but most Liverpool fans will have fond memories of Darren Burgess, the man who served as Head of Fitness and Conditioning between 2010 and 2012.  He had previously gone to the World Cup with Australia as their Head of Sports Science of the Football Federation of Australia and fitness coach of the national team, and during his time on Merseyside he further enhanced the fine reputation he built there.

Darren is currently working in the Australian Rules football as High Performance Manager at Port Adelaide Football but, despite the busy schedule, he kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the physical aspect of the development of players.

The full interview can be read on Blueprint for Football.

The Man Who Made Barca

Paul Grech Wednesday, November 27, 2013 , ,
In hindsight, it has to rank as one of worst decision in the history football.  When San Lorenzo dithered about paying for the treatment that a kid by the name of Leo Messi needed, they were letting slip through their hands a boy who would go on to become one of the finest players in the history of the game.

That story is fairly well known but there was also a time when Messi wouldn’t have found an opportunity at Barcelona either.  Not because of the expense involved in the treatment that he needed but because he wasn’t as tall as they expected players to be.

Johann Cruyff is often credited as the man who set up the youth focused philosophy at Barcelona but, in truth, he was building on what was already there.  In fact, the man who began it all was Laureano Ruiz and one of the changes that he put in place was the abolishment of a policy where only players of a certain height were considered.

“When I arrived at Barça there was a sign on door of the coaches’ offices that said "if you come with a youth who is shorter than 1.80 meters, turn around!" he recalls.  “This obsession with height wasn’t limited to one club but it was a general view.  If they’d been born earlier none of Messi , Xavi or Iniesta would have made it to the first team.”

Full article can be read on Blueprint for Football.

Sports Book Chat: Arnie Baldursson

Paul Grech Thursday, October 31, 2013 , , ,
Some time in the late eighties, the BBC issued a documentary called The Official History of Liverpool FC.  With a football-illiterate father and no one to talk to about my growing obsession with the game, that video was played on a semi-permanent loop to the extent that eventually I learnt it all by hear. And, I have to admit, that I thought that I knew quite a lot about the club thanks to that video.

Eventually, I realised that I had only scratched the surface and my education was boosted by reading whatever biographies I could come across. Even so, with a history as rich as Liverpool’s it is virtually impossible to cover everything going bit by bit. Which is why the Liverpool Encyclopedia is such a great idea: it serves as the bible of all things Liverpool.

One of the men behind this labour of love is Arnie Baldursson and the Tomkins Times got in touch to talk about this book and what led to it.


How Early Specialisation is Ruining Kids

Paul Grech Saturday, October 26, 2013 , ,
So, this is how it normally goes.  You, a passionate football fan, take your son or daughter to practice as soon as they’re old enough.  Hopefully you’re enlightened enough not to put too much pressure on them to prove that they’re a great talent but, still, there is that hope in you.  And, unless they’re complete failures – which, in truth, most kids aren’t – or they really hate it you keep on taking them.

After all, everyone knows that with enough practise of the right sort experts can be developed.  Who hasn’t heard of Ericsson’s 10,000 hour theory made famous by Malcolm Gladwell?

All of this is fine, as long as the kids are enjoying themselves.  They might not turn out to be the football stars that you’re secretly hoping they become but their regular attendance is not only keeping them healthy but it is also indirectly instilling in them habits that will help them in other areas.

What could be a problem, however, is if they are forced to keep practising one sport – and just one sport – in the vain hope that they put in the required hours because the truth is that this isn’t helping them.  In fact, it could be doing the opposite.

The rest of the article can be read on Blueprint for Football.

On The Other Side of an Interview

Paul Grech Tuesday, October 22, 2013 ,
Often in interviews I am the one asking the questions so it was a bit different to find myself on the other side of the picture; being the one getting interviewed.  The nice people at Esto Es Anfield asked to talk about a subject close to my heart - youth football - and the result can be found here.

How Habits Shape Football (And Why They Matter To You)

There are very few teams who can do what Barcelona have; keeping the sympathy and support of the neutrals despite dominating Spanish and, to an extent, European football.  Few seem to begrudge their success and, if anything, many cheer them on.  If someone other than my team has to win, then I’d rather it is Barcelona.

The reason for that lies in the way that they play the game.  The verve, creativity and fluidity of their movement is as spellbinding for those watching as it is to the defenders who are trying to stop them from scoring.  

Look closer, however, and you start noticing something strange; that their play seems to follow a very rigid pattern.  The six-seconds rule – press in order to try to win back possession for six second after losing it and if that doesn’t happen, retreat back to your half of the pitch – is perhaps the most famous such pattern but there are others.  

The rest of this piece, which was hugely inspired by Charles Duhigg’s excellent book ‘The Power of Habit', can be found on Blueprint for Football.

More on The Eagle that Delivered Hope...

Paul Grech Friday, October 4, 2013 ,
It is always an honour for my writing to be recognised, not least when it is an influential outlet like The Guardian which ranked my piece on Aquila Calcio as one of the five to read.


The Eagle That Delivered Hope

Paul Grech Thursday, October 3, 2013 , , ,
It was on the 6th of April 2009 that life in the central Italian town of L’Aquila changed forever.  At three thirty-two in the morning of that fateful day, an earthquake registered at 5.9 on the Richter scale hit the whole region leaving devastation in its wake.

In total 309 people died whilst some 1,600 others were left injured – 200 of whom seriously - and in excess of 65,000 people were rendered homeless.  Countless lives had been shattered, dreams snatched away from people and the town itself left in ruins.

Confronted by such human tragedies, it is impossible not to think of how ridiculous it is to waste so much time and energy worrying about the fate of a football team; it is impossible not to come to the conclusion that in the end football isn’t a matter of life and death no matter what we say or how we try to dress it up.

Yet it is also in such moments that sports’ most beautiful of characteristics, that power to unite and help in the healing process, shines brightest.

Talking Italian in the North East

Paul Grech Wednesday, October 2, 2013 ,
Whenever there’s a debate about who is doing it right in the transfer market, two clubs are routinely held up as prime examples.  There’s Porto, the perennial Portuguese champions who have made a fortune off their ability to develop South American talent before selling them off for ridiculous mark-ups.

Then there’s Udinese.  The Italian side’s story is perhaps more intriguing because, unlike Porto, they weren’t one of the country’s traditional big clubs making their rise all the more remarkable.   Up till the early nineties, most of their history had been spent playing in the Serie B or lower.  Then they began striking it lucky finding one talented player after another.

The Secrets of the Talent Spotters

Paul Grech Monday, September 30, 2013 , ,
Each day thousands upon thousands of words are written about football.  A lot of it is fluff; guess work by those who either wrongfully imply they have contacts within the game or else argumentative nothing by people trying to show how clever they are.

There is very little which gives you real insight into how the game works; very little from which you walk away feeling that you’re slightly more capable in discerning what is happening.

The Nowhere Men is one such rarity.  As he journeys into the world of football scouting, talking to an impressive number of people who work in that area, Michael Calvin slowly shows you what goes into scouting a player, bringing down the illusion – for those naïve enough to believe it – that selecting a player to add to a squad is any easy process.

In it he shows how the best scouts go about forming an opinion on players and why some clubs hold back from signing a player even though there is both the financial ability by the club and talent on the part of the player.

The interview with Michael Calvin can be read on Blueprint for Football.

Perception is in the Eye of the Beholder

Within instances of the ball arriving at his feet, Xavi Hernandez looks around him, takes in what runs his team-mates are making and then moves the ball on.  It is a simple process yet, within a team of the ball playing ability of Barcelona, it is also a devastating one; capable of ripping to shreds the best laid plans of most teams.

Few players embody Barcelona’s style of play as much as Xavi.  His ability to pass through bigger and more physically imposing players mirrors his team’s favoured way of winning games.   It is difficult to determine what is more impressive; whether it is the fluidity or the speed at which all of their attacks are created.  No matter how tight opposing teams try marking Xavi – or his teammates, for the matter – they always seem to find a way through.

The main reason for this is that Xavi is a fantastically talented player, one who can see the game in a way few in the world can.

Why is that the case, however?  What is it that makes him so special?

Those are the questions that Geir Jordet has been trying to answer and answer in a very specific method: by looking at players’ faces during games.

The rest of the article can be read on Blueprint for Football.

Playing it Right: Rhyl FC's Strong Beliefs

Paul Grech Sunday, August 25, 2013 , ,
What was your most cherished possession as a child?  Ask that question to anyone with an interest in football and more often than not you'll be told of some fancy pair of boots or a kit of their favourite team received as a gift at Christmas or on their birthday.

Even though years will have passed since they last wore them, they'll go on to describe every little detail about them and just what it was that made them special.  More than their words, however, it is their faces that typically do most of the communicating as these usually light up at the memory of the games they used to play and the fun they had.

Playing football should always be about creating such memories yet, unfortunately, that’s not always a priority when a child signs on for an academy or a centre of education.  Suddenly it becomes all about the pressure of keeping up with the rest so as to be retained and the fear of being let go.

Not at Rhyl FC, however.  “When a player signs for us they get their own football,” says the club’s manager Greg Strong.  “We strongly believe that everything should be done with the ball.”

The rest of this interview can be read at Blueprint for Football.

England's Way Forward

If you’ve got any interest in the development of talent, particularly in England, then the chances are that you have come across Matt Whitehouse at some point or another.  The author of the hugely popular blog The Whitehouse Address owes a lot of his success to his hard hitting; no hold barred style of writing that doesn’t shirk from criticising those that he feels are failing football in England.

What few people know, however, is that Matt is also a qualified coach who has worked for professional academies and for whom writing about the game is a way of understanding it better.

Perhaps that is why he has written ‘The Way Forward’.  But, more likely, it is an attempt to try and influence a system that  - as seen this summer – seems to be failing at producing players who are good enough for the highest level.  As he admits in this interview with Blueprint for Football, the aim is to “to give a comprehensive insight into the issues which have plagued English football in the past and the concerns of what is holding us back in the present and future.”

The rest of this interview can be read on Blueprint for Football.

A Nice Bit of Praise

Paul Grech
There is always a little bit of trepidation when you submit an unsolicited piece to a website; an expectation that it will come back with a note saying that it isn't good enough.

That was the feeling when I sent a piece on Vujadin Boskov to the editors at In Bed With Maradona.  But instead, I received what is probably one of the finest compliments I've ever received:

"Gems such as these are not just welcome here, they are cherished".

They Are They, We Are We: The Forgotten Genius of Vujadin Boskov

"Rigore e' quando arbitro da"

If during the eighties you followed Italian football with any degree of interest, then those words (that, incidentally, mean "penalty is when referee gives it") should sound familiar.  As should "se vinciamo siamo vincitori se perdiamo siamo perditori" (if we win we are winners, if we lose we are losers) and "loro sono loro, noi siamo noi" (they are they, we are we).


Sports Book Chat: Chris Anderson

In the beginning, there was Moneyball.

Well, not really.  What kicked off sport’s interest in statistics was an underground movement in baseball headed by Bill James and which eventually made its way into the mainstream in the form of statisticians being employed by clubs. It was James who coined the term ‘sabermetrics’ (the search for objective knowledge about baseball) and who started publishing his theories in the highly influential Baseball Abstract books.


The Need For Style

Paul Grech Monday, July 22, 2013 , ,
Given that he had a team that contained the talents of David de Gea, Thiago Alcantara, Iker Muniain and Isco, it is tempting to assume that Julen Lopetegui's job as the Spanish Under 21 manager is a fairly easy one.  Yet there was more to Spain as they won their second consecutive European title then a collection of talented players; their typical play based on short passing and intense pressure placed those talents in a position to excel.

Again, the temptation is there to generalise and assume that a Spanish national team playing that kind of football is a given; that it is automatic.  Yet it is not.  Players spend only a fraction of their time with the national team and during such restricted time-frames it is practically impossible for them to 'learn' a method of playing.

So how do Spain manage to play in that manner?  An explanation was provided in part by Lopetegui himself who said "We have a crystal clear philosophy on how to play football...ultimately for all Spanish national team football  we want to have many players near the ball, and we want players with great technical repertoire. That is why we include players with these qualities."

The rest of the article can be found on Blueprint for Football.

Sports Book Chat: Paul Brown

Every day, professional writers and amateur bloggers (as well as amateur writers and professional bloggers) write tens of thousands of words analysing every aspect of every level of the game of football.  Sadly, most of this writing deals with utterly predictable and uninteresting transfer chatter (which is often the work of an overactive imagination) where the only aim is to rack up hits. 

Indeed, the most provocative and stimulating stuff is normally that which deals with topics that aren’t mainstream; articles about or interviews with people who don’t normally attract the spotlight.

In that respect, it is unlikely that anyone will accuse Paul Brown of looking for easy hits.  His last two books deal with football in the Victorian era and in some instances they appear to deal with a completely different ball game.

Yet it is definitely the same game, and it is equally unquestionable that these books make for a surprisingly excellent and entertaining read.  For proof, just read the following interview to see how Liverpool’s birth was reported and why the club’s name could have been so different.

Don’t Make Work-Life Balance Your Goal

Work-life balance.  

I hate that phrase and all that it implies.  

When you're trying to balance something against another, what you're doing is trying to fight off gravity's pull on those two things.  Is that really how we want to view things?  Is there anything that, when put on the other side of the scale can act as a counter-weight to your family?

More than the semantics of it all, I hate how we’ve been fooled into allowing the ‘work-life balance’ myth to gain credibility; how there are those who push it as though it were the goal which all parents should strive to achieve.  For me, there is no such thing as work-life balance; there is work and there is life.  Thinking that you can ever get to a point where the former does not impinge on the latter is an illusion.

Helping the Brain Win Games

Paul Grech Thursday, June 6, 2013 , ,
When Alex Ferguson starts talking about opponents, he does so in order to unsettle them and it usually works.  Everywhere he has been, Jose Mourinho has projected himself as the undiscussed leader, thus serving as a lightning rod for any criticism - which he is more than capable of handling - and shielding his player from having to spend any energy dealing with it. Zlatan Ibrahimovic talks about himself in the first person because it reinforces his (already quite large) belief in his own abilities.

These subtle mental tricks don't fall within the common attributes one would normally require of football managers (tactics, ability to buy and develop good players) or player (strength, technique) yet without them these three individuals wouldn't be anywhere as successful as they are.  What's more, everyone accepts that this is what helps make them so special.

The rest of this article can be read on Blueprint for Football.

Finnish Lessons

Every three years, education systems from around the world are evaluated by a system known as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) to determine the quality of education in maths, reading and sciences that the students in each country are receiving.  Two countries have regularly ranked among the best ever since PISA was introduced in 2000; one of which expectedly, the other perhaps less so: South Korea and Finland.

That this happens is interesting because the two have a widely differing approach to education.  The Korean results are largely down to sheer work ethic with the students regularly spending 14 hours a day studying for the all-important college entrance exam.  It is as if Eriksson's 10,000 hours rule were applied to education, with the students looking to cram in as many hours of study as possible in order to gain the expertise they believe is required.

The rest of this article can be read on Blueprint for Football.

A Time-Frame for Liverpool’s Youth Philosophy

Paul Grech Tuesday, June 4, 2013 ,
The name of Horst Wein is unlikely to register with many football fans.  He never played the game at any level nor has he made an impact as a manager.  Football isn't even his first love, hockey is.  Even so, Wein is one of the deepest and most influential thinkers within the game.  He was one of the first to strongly argue in favour of smaller sided games (although he prefers the term 'simplified games') for younger players; views that everyone now seems to be accepting and enthusing about but which were considered as idiotic for a long time.

Time Management Key For Sammut

Whenever the Games for the Small States of Europe come round, it is the norm to see a number of records fall at the Marsa track as athletes push themselves to achieve the minimum targets set for them to achieve qualification.  So it is proving to be this year with the opening weeks of the season delivering a host of new national bests.


Changing Party Traditions

Contrary to what Elton John sang, sorry has never been the hardest word for me.  Instead what I really struggle with is to tell people ‘no’.  It has always been a problem for me although, if I think hard enough, I believe that I can trace where it all started.

It was at a friend’s birthday party, more precisely when his mother came round holding a plate of stuffed eggs.  I’d never tasted one but from the smell I knew that the last place I wanted to put it was in my mouth.  Yet my tentative shake of the head wasn’t enough to deter her and, if anything, it seemed to strengthen her resolve to ensure that I ate one.


A Loan Well Done

Paul Grech Thursday, April 18, 2013 ,
Which two Liverpool first team members played in a League Cup Final during the 2012-13 season?

In coming years that could be a trick question in pub quizzes all over Merseyside.

Should you be on the receiving end of that then you’re lucky because I’m about to tell you the answer: Danny Wilson and Michael Ngoo, who both played for Hearts in their 2-3 defeat to St. Mirren in the Scottish League Cup final.


From the San Siro to Gusen

Paul Grech Friday, March 29, 2013 , , ,

Although inconsequential when compared to the horrors that were inflicted elsewhere, the Second World War robbed a whole generation of footballers of the finest years of their career.  Those who went to war as young men returned to find that they only had a few years left in their legs and yet they were the lucky ones.  Others either didn't return at all or else didn't have the strength to continue playing.

Unlike many, however, it was during the war that Ferdinando Valletti played the most important games of his life in a setting that was as distant from the stadia of the Serie A as possible.


Up Pohnpei

Paul Grech Monday, March 18, 2013 , ,
Leafing through the history of the English game you come across a number of visionary managers whose greatness stems from their achievements abroad.  Vic Buckingham almost became the first manager to win the double with West Bromwich Albion yet his biggest contribution to the game was that of laying the foundations for Total Football at Ajax. Jimmy Hogan was another who went against the flow by championing a game based on quick passes.  He too found that his theories were more appreciated in Hungary and Austria - where they gave birth to two teams that were to dominate the game - then they were at home. Then there's Fed Pentland who became a legend at Athletic Bilbao, Tony Waiters who took Canada to the World Cup and Bob Houghton who help shaped tactics in Scandinavia.

Comparing Paul Watson to such legendary figures would be foolhardy for in no way does he possess their coaching talent or vision. Yet in his own way he too has helped shape the footballing culture of a whole nation.

Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer