Kirkland Coaching Professional Coaching Expertise

Can We Make Scottish Football Great Again?

Andy Kirkland Ph.D.


In this blog, I take an outsider’s look at Scottish Football and speak with the Icelandic FA to see if their system may offer a solution to the problems faced by our national game.

For once I got home from work at a human hour, made a cuppa and sat down to watch the football. Whilst that may seem a pretty normal thing to do for many blokes, until recently it would have been highly irregular for me. That’s because I’ve firmly sat in the anti-football camp since the late 80’s when I discovered it was far more pleasurable to freeze my bollocks off on a bike rather than on the Easter Road slope.

However, I now lecture on the MSc. sports and performance coaching programmes at the University of Stirling and around 50% of my students are involved in the game at every level. They work in the English Premier League, SPFL, North American soccer schools, SFA Regional Performance Schools and grass-roots clubs. Getting to know these students has been an eye-opener. They’re highly passionate and committed to their sport. They want to learn to be better at what they do and they care deeply about their players. Not that different to me.

Looking at football as an outsider, as someone who knows quite a bit about how to develop athletes and high-performance, I was surprised how far behind the game is from world-class sport…well apart from a few top-tier teams. It’s easy to believe that football is caught in the past, but what I failed to appreciate was the complexity of the football environment in which the game is played. The role of a football coach is not too dissimilar to that of a teacher in a ‘failing’ school. Behaviour-management (termed man-management) usually comes at the expense of learning and performance optimisation. To succeed in such an environment, coaches need either to be outstanding at what they do or have a massive budget at their disposal. Even then, being sacked can be a few defeats away as coaches are held accountable for the failure of players or their boards

Many of the coaches I have spoken to over the last year share similar frustrations with the Scottish game. They recognise that the system they are part of is flawed at best. Of course, the reasons for such malaise is complex. The game is administered by ‘a type’ in the SFA; clubs protect their financial interests whilst only paying lip service to the national game; players in the professional game hold too much power over those who manage them; and managers are typically employed on the basis of who they are rather than their skills for the job. Then there’s sociocultural factors, many related to post-industrial issues, in which the working-class communities who used to supply the talent no longer exist in a coherent form.

Earlier in the year, I met with head of football at the BBC, Chris McLaughlin, to talk about Scottish football and he asked me what could be done to sort the game in Scotland. I came out with “Like f**k if I know”. Providing a simple answer to such complex question is impossible. However, I fancy myself as a bit of an expert who maybe one day would like to be a performance manager in sport and had frustrated myself by not being able to give a coherent answer. I wondered ‘what would I do if I was in Malky MacKay’s boots (the newly appointed SFA Performance Director).

It’s easy to believe that the system in Scotland is completely broken because there is compelling evidence to suggest this is the case. The national side hasn’t qualified for a major competition since 1998, it is questionable whether we have any world-class players and the domestic leagues are not providing a quality product for their fans.

It’s not all bad news, with the SFA investing in a great programme. During the week, I visited Chris and Ian, two of my MSc. students, who are working for the SFA on the Performance Schools Programme at Graeme High School in Falkirk. What I saw was inspirational. The guys have developed a group of disciplined and talented young lads who are learning the skills to equip them for the professional game. Watching a training session, one young lad ran with such poise, strength and form that Ian had to warn me off talent spotting for triathlon!

It’s one thing to have a great youth development system. It’s another thing for it to fit seamlessly into the wider system. Many of the lads play for professional clubs who are not necessarily as player-centred as they could be. Rather, players are treated like milk-producing cows…if they’re not producing the goods, they’re not worth keeping. That is not to say that individual staff and coaches do not care, because absolutely the opposite is true. However, the metrics on which people are judged comes down to the bottom-line of winning and money. I get this once players are fully developed…high-performance sport is not fair. However, I do question whether it is possible for players to experience joy and fun in a club academy structure in which 9-year olds experience pressure to progress to the next level. This is a false economy because those who have fun and develop a love of the game will invariably perform at a higher level as they mature.

Further, it is worrying that the 2010 McLeish Report accepted the 10,000-hour rule for producing elite performers as a fundamental truth without due diligence. The BBC article here gives a good summary. This rule continues to drive youth development policies designed to clock up the hours, despite there being good evidence to suggest that early specialisation is negative and that talent in pre-pubescent children is as hard to spot as a hair on the top of my head.

Following the question set by Chris at the BBC, I set about trying to understand what other countries do to develop successful youth development programmes. The ECS report was a good starting point. However, what was clear was that success is highly correlated with the size of investment teams put into their development programmes. We all know that correlation does not infer cause and effect. Rather, I tend to believe that the correlation is the result of a honey-pot effect. The best worldwide talent tends to be attracted by the stature and financial power of the big clubs and their success is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of their youth structure.

Whilst the financial clout of Scottish clubs is limited, we still see the honey-pot effect, in which the best talent goes to clubs that have the financial clout to develop systems to achieve elite academy status within the Club Academy Structure. This system disadvantages players from the previous working-class hotbeds of football, because their families may not have the access to a car to take them to training and they may not have the where-for-all to support a performance lifestyle. Gordon Strachan and Brian McClair realised this and started a process for change a few years ago to redirect investment into local programmes. More recently, it was announced that club academies will be reduced from 29 to 16 clubs…and if ‘cost-savings’ are reinvested in traditional community clubs like Hutchison Vale, then this may be a good thing.

It’s hard to be optimistic about Scottish Football though. That is not to disrespect Malky, but rather to recognise that for Scotland to rise again, we need reform at every level of the game. This must start at board level. The current Board of the SFA lacks diversity and expertise appears to be in big business or at armchair football expert level. Furthermore, many in charge of the strategic direction of the game are successful ex-players who have lived inside the football bubble since they were young boys. Of course, business nous and an understanding of how to operate in the football bubble is essential. However, this must be balanced with expertise in long-term athlete development systems and appropriate high-performance expertise. Further, it requires an understanding that young people will not reach their true potential if they are treated as inputs to achieve key performance indicators. Business models that are becoming more prevalent in sport, which value tight bureaucracy and control and place too much importance on things that are easy to measure. They neglect factors such as creativity, innovation or the value of developing fit, disciplined young people who can offer more to the wider community.

Anyway…It’s easy to whine and find fault in anything. I wanted to look beyond the honey-pot effect to develop a deeper understanding of the type of system that could be successful in a small nation like Scotland with minimal financial clout in the game. That journey took me to Dagur Dagbjartsson, head of coach education at the Icelandic FA. The remainder of this blog is dedicated to what I learn from our chat. What I discovered was that one of the smallest football associations in Europe had developed an almost perfect model of player and coach development.

England 1 Iceland 2

What is Iceland Doing Right?

Whilst historically I have not taken a close interest in football, I still have the Scottish gene which relishes a guid old-fashioned English defeat. On the 27th of June 2016, Iceland beat England 2-1 in the European Championships, to make it to the quarter-finals.

Just before the Euro’s I had read an article in the Guardian which talked about the commitment the Icelandic FA gave to the development of coaches. So I fired off an email to Dagur to arrange a chat to learn about the special things the Icelanders were doing. The big question for me was “why has Iceland been so successful?”

Dagur revealed secrets that were relatively straightforward. Their system was a small one, unadulterated by money and grounded in a community spirit. They foster an environment which allows young people to succeed, not through compliance under threat of not making it up to the next age-group but through the government, FA, coaches, players all working together with a shared philosophy. Their system was built around the basic UEFA structure as is required by UEFA members, but coaches are given autonomy to coach in the way they think best. They are not dictated to by a rigid football association structures or dogmatic coach-educators telling them how to coach.

To give autonomy to and empower coaches requires a system which values coaches as professionals, in which education is central. Dagur told me that the Icelandic FA had been incredibly successful in getting more coaches qualified; however, quality was more important. What marked the Icelandic coaches out was their work ethic, them having the right mentality and a deep passion for the game. There was no anti-intellectual culture or a resistance to learning from outsiders.

Like Scotland, Iceland is a small country and that can make things far easier. The fact that there is no academy system or any professional clubs helps. Rather, football clubs are community ones. They foster inclusivity by allowing anyone to join, regardless of ability. Young players are encouraged to train and form tight bonds with their friends. This social aspect is incredibly important to the development of adolescents and teenagers. It helps them build confidence, social skills, relationships and trust, independent of their parents. Sitting in a car for 90-minutes to get to the training ground and only seeing team-mates in short episodic bouts does not.

Inclusivity does not come at the expense of player development and performance in Iceland. Firstly, coaches who work with children under the age of 10 years are given priority within the system. That is because they are responsible for developing foundational skills which support future performance. Secondly, differentiating between players based on ability rather than age is critical so that players face challenges appropriate for their level of development. This system also means that teams face others of similar ability and scores of 20-0 are not the norm.

Of course, NGB’s can’t take full responsibility for the development of young people and that’s where government policy comes into play. Whilst Iceland is starting to face some of the same challenges of child physical inactivity as the rest of the developed world, the kids still do 3 sports sessions at school per week, one of which is swimming. This is important because the evidence is clear that overt early specialisation in a sport is not a good thing.

Whilst there is not much money in Icelandic football, that does not mean to say it is unprofessional. All coaches are paid and many treat coaching as a 2nd job. I wish this was the case in the UK. In smaller clubs, many coaches are well meaning volunteers, often parents and armchair experts. Volunteer coaching typically leaves volunteers out of pocket and does not foster a culture of lifelong learning. Whilst coaching young people can be incredibly rewarding, it’s never nice to be abused by other parents. Such problems are way too prevalent in football but far easier to deal with and negate as a skilled professional.

Dagur was surprised to hear the attrition rate of newly qualified coaches in the UK. Whilst there are notable exceptions, most volunteer coaches give up after a few years. Of those who remain, few have the agency to continue to learn. Even in the professional game, treating coaches as professionals is an issue. Although not surprised, I was angered when I saw an advertisement for an Academy coach (albeit in England) that was advertising a coaching post for £20k a year. Professional playing experience was desirable and a UEFA A coaching badge was essential (cost circa £2500). The job involved weekend and unsocial working hours, driving the team mini-bus and liaising with senior staff and parents. As an indirect consequence of such insulting salaries, many of our best young coaches’ head off to North America where the financial rewards are consummate with the skill levels required. We should be doing everything we can to retain our best young coaches and when the average salary at Celtic is £717K a year and even a Hamilton player gets £42k...then maybe the clubs should consider their priorities.

In Iceland, all clubs have a close relationship with and are funded by the FA. They generate further income from annual joining fees and this is money is used to educate coaches. They need a full skill-set to train all players as they don’t have individual specialists such as goal-keeping coaches. This is viewed as a good thing. Further, playing philosophies do not come from head coaches or managers working at senior level. I believe this is very important because senior football is not about player development, it is about winning. I also believe that the role of youth coaches is far more challenging in on-field coaching terms because they are responsible for:

• Developing foundational skills which support players for the rest of their footballing careers

• Differentiating between children at different stages of physical and mental development

• Understanding and dealing with factors such as growth-spurts and rapid hormonal change with result in unpredictable changes in player performance and behaviour

• Develop player decision-making skills

• Delivering appropriately challenging and engaging activities which develop work-ethic and resilience.

Developing a youth development strategy takes very specific expertise and knowledge. It also requires recognition that children are not small adults. Senior playing or management experience does not provide the skills or expertise to provide strategic lead in a youth environment. It does, however, help in gaining credibility with the clubs that need to be influenced. This aspect of the role should not be undervalued.

The Icelandic FA has successfully implemented a coherent and joined-up sports policy which is outputting quality footballers. My guess is that they used a very similar model as the SPLISS 9-pillar model (Figure 1) to do so. Although I’m fiercely critical of many of the details that underpin this model, the pillars highlight the areas of expertise required to successfully implement a successful performance development pathway. Implementation of such a model requires appreciation of the complex interaction between each pillar, and expertise in the mechanisms and mediating factors that explain what is optimal in each.

Figure 1 The SPLISS 9 Pillars Model (De Bosscher et al. 2015)

To Be a Nation Again?

When Chris at the BBC asked what I would do to solve the problems of Scottish Football, I’ll be honest and say I thought it was an impossible task. However, I failed to recognise how many committed, inspirational and intelligent people work in football. I had lost sight of how important the game is in Scottish society, particularly in the type of community I was brought up in.

The question remains, can Scottish Football change and start punching above our weight again? We can’t compete in financial terms and have too small a population to play the shit, stick and wall game. We must stop trying to compete with The Auld Enemy and look to small countries like Iceland to learn. Not as a downtrodden nation with a sense of entitlement, but as a nation of communities, in which, if we can learn to pull together again, we can show the Auld Enemy how to produce world-class footballers like Dalglish and Law.

To do so requires a strategy in which the Scottish Government, the SFA and clubs at all levels pull together for the ‘Common Weel’. The SFA board must be forced to reform its governance and take responsibility for its poor leadership. It must then develop a transparent vision and philosophy in which young people, communities, coaching and coach education are central. It cannot be empty rhetoric. Clubs must also recognise that business models which focus on short-term gain are not transferable to the long-term development of young people.

Programmes for young people must help them build confidence, social skills, relationship and trust. They must also be able to overcome adversity. Watching Sportscene at the weekend, these attributes seemed sadly lacking in many of the players. It wasn’t that they were lacking fitness or skill. There just seemed to be a je ne sais quoi of lethargy, in which players were just to be doing a normal day job, rather than doing something they love. Ok, Fir Park on a Saturday may not seem glamorous, but playing sport and getting paid for it and being central to the lives of many fans is a privilege which should be treated as such.

To an extent, wider society is failing young people and football can have a wider role in society to help them, without compromising on the performance front. The new Performance Director and Head of Coaching must be allowed to do more than tinker around the edges of a flawed academy system, otherwise they are unlikely to make much of a difference. Whilst reducing the number of academies and introducing bio-banding categories may help, such interventions do not alleviate the need for car travel to get to training. Clubs must also recognise that metrics used in big business fail to account for the non-linearity of athletic progression in young people. Intra-seasonal variations in performance are such that it is difficult to find valid measures of progress in any period less than 2 years. Rather, young players should experience the joys of fulfilment of progressing over many years, with opportunity to play both community and top level football. This isn’t much to ask for and it may even be cheaper to deliver.

Iceland have managed to develop a system which works in their environment. Is doing the same beyond a country like Scotland?

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