Making a Footballer: Interview with
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In life two things are certain, death, and being drenched in the middle of a football field as someone shouts at you to wake up.
In professional football a big deal is made when a player transitions from academy to first team but, most players don’t start at a club’s academy. Schoolboy or “Sunday league” football is a pillar for most youngsters growing up, it starts out as something your dad signed you up for and transforms into a major outlet for physical and social growth.
Many footballers today have at one stage in their youth been a “Sunday league” player, Jimmy Bullard, Charlie Austin and of course Premier League winner Jamie Vardy are examples of Sunday league football who have become top level players. Fortunately, for these players and others, they get spotted by an academy or first team coach and they’re on the first step to a long journey towards stardom. If the player develops well and is given an opportunity in the first team it’s the academy that gets most of the credit.
Indeed, the academy deserves huge respect and recognition for assisting the development of a now first team player but, what about the person who sacrificed their time to bringing orange slices, full water bottles, and clean kits to a field on a cold Sunday morning for free? The people who look after the earliest stage of development of players are often overlooked and yet, they continue to do what they do.
What is it like for a schoolboy manager to watch these youngsters grow and to watch some be whisked away to bigger opportunities? I sat down with James “Jimmy” Harte, the man who coached Damien Duff for his last year before beginning his journey to being one of Irelands standout Premier League Players.
Coaches for schoolboy football are the spark and provide many young footballers with the support and inspiration needed to make it to a professional or even semi-professional level. A lot of these coaches like James have put years of their life into the sport and often have coached many teams before they decide to call it a day.
“I am very happy being a karate instructor”
Jimmy has seen it all. Now a Karate coach, he spent 20+ years in the Sunday ranks and has experienced the pressures of enthusiastic parents, and the joy of seeing natural talent emerge.
“I spent 24 years as a coach. I coached at St. Kevin’s, Home Farm, St. Francis Schoolboys, St. Francis League of Ireland, Aer Lingus, Kinvara Ards, St. James’ Gate and St. Joseph’s Schoolboys. I saw some amazing player’s progress during those years. Nicky Byrne, I coached from the time he was 7 up until he went to play for Leeds. Damien Duff I only coached for the last year until he went to Blackburn, he was with 2 different clubs before that. It was great to see them grow and develop and get the opportunity to go to England to play in the pro leagues. Some players stand out early on and some are late developers, like Paul McGrath who didn’t start playing until late. Usually there are tell-tale signs if the player has ability to possibly make it. I had a few players that left over the years to go to England. Nicky, Damien, Alan Maybury, Alan Lee, Gary Smith, Mark Benson. Others went on trial, like Gavin Moore, Peter White, Brian Rickard and a few others.
They all had good ability, but one of the main reasons Irish players went away at that time was because it was a cheap option because there were no fees at the time to be paid to the clubs they came from. It’s not just about being good enough to get away, also a lot depends on being lucky when you arrive at a club in England as it just depends on what kind of player they need at the time, if you fit in and if you get a break to play on the reserves or the first team. One of my lads went over as a full back, and he heard they were struggling for wingers and when he was asked he said he was a winger, just so he would have a better chance of getting onto the team. But it’s a lot more difficult nowadays to get into a club because of the scouts being able to get players from anywhere they want.”
Jimmy Coached Damien Duff during his final year of amateur football
It may be hard to believe but these coaches are under a great deal of pressure when it comes to helping develop a young player in a fun and educational environment, whilst also trying to get good results for the club. Some of this pressure comes from the club and the parents but, as Jimmy recalls the most intense pressure being the expectation they have for themselves as coaches. “It was more the pressure you put on yourself to do your best to make them successful as players. However, if the team did not perform well the club would have looked to replace me so there was some pressure in that regard.”
When a young player moves from amateur football to semi-professional and then possibly to professional, it is quite common for the manager who coached them through their earlier years to slip their mind however, some managers leave an impression on players that lasts a long time. “I’ve kept in touch with a few of the lads who have played for me, they still keep in touch. Alan Maybury brought me over to see his matches a few times when he was at Hearts and at again at Leicester. Nicky even invited me to his wedding.”
For players to make the grade, there are elements that are crucial, on the physical and psychological side. For Jimmy you need both, you can have all the skill in the world but if the mind-set is not there, it doesn’t matter. It was what he searched for in his players.
“For me, the key ingredients were good work ethic and determination. You’re always looking for someone who is physically fit or capable of being fit. Mentally you look for a winning mentality and a team player. You can have all the physical ability possible but unless you have the mental balance and drive you are wasting your time.”
With big names undergoing part of their rise to stardom under Jimmy’s watchful eye, what advice would he give to today’s young coaches, “Get out and practice as often as possible for the players. For the coaches, I’d advise them to use more footballs when training and build the running into the drills with footballs rather than just running on its own.”
“For the coaches, I’d advise them to use more footballs when training”
The modern coach faces many challenges when coaching young kids today. There are too many experts on the side-lines looking to put structure into youth coaching while the pressure from clubs and parents on young players can be excessive. Young players should be allowed develop in a relaxed environment.
It is perhaps one of the reasons, along with the emergence and dependence on continental European talent, why we have not seen another Damien Duff emerge from Ireland yet. “For scouts it is a lot more difficult now because for players it was the natural option to go to England if they were good and it was cheap for the English clubs to bring them in whereas now scouts are sending players from all over the world to England, so I think its better now for players to play in their national league clubs here and get more experience before they go.”
We introduced James to the idea of Profile 90, a Dublin based smart scouting platform designed to make scouting for players easier. His thoughts seem to go hand in hand with the ideology behind it, “Anything that can help a coach get a better understanding of a player he is working with would be a good tool. As I said earlier the psychological side is a big part of any athlete.”
The former Home Farm F.C coach now owns his own Karate dojo in Dublin. Karate and football are very different sports but, does James see similarities in the physical and psychological traits of students of his dojo, that he seen in his footballers? “Stadium Karate in Blanchardstown is my dojo. There are similarities in the athlete’s physical abilities, but it is totally different because karate is an individual sport so to be successful as a karate athlete, you need to be even more single minded and mentally strong because there’s nobody around you to give you a hand or cover for your mistakes in a fight.”
“Anything that can help a coach get a better understanding of a player he is working with would be a good tool”
We asked Jimmy if he would ever consider going back to the side of a pitch on a cold wet Sunday morning in November and he gave us a short, blunt, and honest response, “I think after giving 24 years to football coaching I am now very happy being a karate instructor. This is where I will stay.”
From football to karate no matter where Jimmy goes he has an extremely positive effect on youngsters, helping them develop physically and mentally into the world of sport.
To Jimmy and all the other men and women sacrificing their time to bring us the future of sport, we salute you.