May Masterclass Report

TALK GIVEN BY MARTIN ALLEN AT THE LFCA – 10/5/17


Martin Allen has never been afraid to speak his mind as both a player and now as a Manager/Coach and so the discussion evening at the LFCA on their last session of the 2016/17 season, produced plenty of lively debate and insight into his career and philosophy.

Martin's talk came straight after the Association's AGM which he had sat in on and so he had heard the Committee's pleas to members to try and increase the declining membership numbers by inviting friends along. When he glanced at the names of some of the coaches who have put on sessions over the years, Martin expressed shock and surprise at the struggle London, along with other independent Coaching Associations, are at present experiencing in their attempts to survive and provide high quality Master Class Sessions for the benefit of their members.

Martin went round some of the members present and asked them what they wanted from their membership. The answers ranged from those who wanted to see sessions in order to improve their own coaching and gain greater knowledge to someone who now plays walking football and finds the work on view even helps with that. Martin said that during his years as a trainee coach, he had attended similar sessions as often as possible in order to learn. Now he goes to St. George's Park to meet new people and look for new angles on the game from people from diverse backgrounds. He was particularly disappointed to hear of the lack of interest from coaches working in pro club academies. These are the people with the future of English football in their hands and they should have an insatiable thirst for knowledge.  Martin was also very disappointed to hear that the FA give the Association very short shrift since  the introduction of the FA Licence Coaches Club and its system of awarding CPD hours for attending their events. The attitude seems to be that once a year's quota of CPD hours have been attained then the interest in attending more coaching sessions seems to diminish. This contrasts badly with the attitude of bygone days, when so many coaches at all levels could not get enough knowledge and went to every possible event in the hope of  learning something new.  

Martin went on to speak about coaches who have influenced him in various ways. He said that there are different ways of being a coach and how you handle players. He spoke about the approach of Danny Cowley at Lincoln City who, together  with his brother Nicky, had so much success this season in the National League Premier and the FA Cup. He said that the players nicknamed him 'Obama' because he the most diplomatic, friendliest person in the way he talks to players, officials, press, club staff etc.  Having worked their way through lower levels of semi pro football with Concord Rangers and Braintree, it is clearly an approach that works for them. Martin knew LFCA Chairman, Tony Carr, from his  time as a player at West Ham where Tony was Youth Team Coach for over 40 years.  Martin said that he would describe Tony's approach as being that of 'tough love'. Tony was tough with his young players and pushed them to train hard. One Sunday morning when Martin was driving into the training ground for treatment after taking a knock the in a match the day before, he saw all the youth players in their training kit running out of the gate and up the road. Tony had brought them in early  on what would have normally have been a day off because their performance the day before had been unacceptable and they needed to know that and take their punishment for it.  So that was a contrast to the approach of the Cowleys but both were effective.

Martin said that he has had to change his approach towards players and how you handle them  with the change in society and you see this with the way that children are treated in schools these days. Like it or not, you have to be careful not to hurt the feelings of young people these days. Martin said that what he has learnt is not to tell players they have done something in a game or exercise wrong, but ask them  what they think they have done wrong. He said he changed his approach when he was told that he had an "angry face" and it was important to lighten up. He  took the advice and immediately found that adopting this change made it so much better for him as a coach.

In his second spell as Manager at Barnet, Martin took a group of the most experienced players into his confidence and regularly discussed matches and situations with them, as he was keen to get their input.  Over the course of the season this group of senior players came up with many answers and different slants on various problems and it worked well in that particular environment and situation. At Gillingham he got rid of his 'angry face' and that worked so well for him there. So coaching and managing is a continual learning curve, where you can learn so much from all kinds of people.

Martin and Tony Carr both agreed that the disappearance of reserve team football has had a detrimental effect on the development of young players. For many young players at Premier League clubs,  the first taste of senior football is when they go on loan to a lower league club and start to play and train with and against men for the first time. The Academy development has not prepared them for this. In the past the best of the Under 18 team would have begun to get games in the Reserves but now the Development squad goes all the way up to Under 23s. So players can be well into their twenties before they face the harshness of senior football and so the disappearance of reserve team football has brought the lack of hardness needed in first team football.

The discussion then turned to the styles of football in the present day game. Martin said that too many teams  kept possession of the ball for the sake of it. Progress up the pitch was slow and he had been particularly disappointed with Reading when he had seen them because they spent too much time passing the ball across the back without making any progress. He said that when Channel 4 started to show 'live' Italian Serie A matches in the 1990s, everyone thought we were in for a treat because that league had so many great players. But it was a big disappointment because there was so much square passing and little goalmouth incident or progressive play. Now so much of our football has become like that and Martin thought that it had a lot to do with the foreign influence. He had recently been to see a Premier League match at Anfield between Liverpool and Burnley. Liverpool had far more technical ability than Burnley but they were all possession and no penetration. The result was 1-1.

Martin went on to talk about various players and teams who had surprised him recently. He had been amazed by the contribution that Victor Moses had made to the success of Chelsea this season. Tony Carr agreed with this point because he remembered him from West Ham and whilst he had thought him a good player, he had not expected him to be as outstanding as he has been at Chelsea this season. But the Manager,  Antonio Conte, has found a position for him at wing back and because he is a high energy player then he has really settled into that role. Tony also went on to say that some players surprise you because you hadn't expected them to be as good as they turned out to be. He also gave the example of Glen Johnson, up until then a central defender, who first got into West Ham's first team at right back because the manager at the time, Glenn Roeder, had no one else to play there.  Johnson did so well that after only 13 first team games Chelsea came in to buy him for a big fee.  

Martin said that when he bought a player he was always very keen to judge their character. He wanted to find out about new players as people so before they signed he would invite the player and his wife for a meal. He would also speak to his friends and contacts in the game to see what they thought about  the character of a particular player.

Sometimes Martin had been unable to convince his Chairman about the value of a player he would like. When he was Manager of Eastleigh in the National League Premier he wanted to buy Tarpey from Maidenhead. The price was £50,000 but his Chairman did not think he was worth it even though Eastleigh had the money.  At that time Tarpey had scored 22 goals playing at left midfield. In the season just ended he had moved up front and scored just as prolifically, which has helped Maidenhead win the National League South Championship.

Finally, Martin expressed his respect for Tony Pulis who he rates as one of the best Manager/Coaches in the Premier League. Martin said that the attention that the West Brom boss gives to set plays is phenomenal  and their place, comfortably in the top half of the Premier League with limited resources, is testament to that.

As an absorbing evening's discussion came to an end Martin, in answer to a question from the floor,  produced a pearl of wisdom when he said that the biggest mistake a coach can make is not enough praise and too much criticism.

Report by Steve Haslam

Photos by David Cumberbatch