Interview with Coaching Guru EDDY WHYTE . . . a Scot who gave up football and then ended up in Europe playing and coaching with the best in the business.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
At age 14 any hopes and ambitions you had of becoming a professional footballer were suddenly dashed due to a serious knee injury - how did that affect you?
I had torn cartilages in both knees and although it was possible to have an operation at that time the success rate was only 50:50. My mother was given the choice, risk the operation and maybe never play sport again, or have a complete rest for 12 months, whereby my knees would have self-healed sufficiently for me to play occasional sport in future years. It was really the surgeon who made the decision, but my mother agreed, there would be no operation. If honest, at that time, being a typical ambitious kid, it didn't overly concern me, because as far as I was concerned the Doctor was wrong and I would eventually make a full recovery.
Clearly it didn't work out as you had hoped, because at age 18 you left home and joined the Army?
It was a stop start situation. For 3 months I would be okay, but then the pain and stiffness would suddenly reappear and I had to rest for the next 3 months. Not only did that affect my overall fitness level but there were also physiological issues - you try to compensate by running less during a game, reduce the number of twists and turns you make, avoid tackles, and restrict yourself to short passes so as to not put too much stress on the knee joint. I was kidding myself, so eventually accepted the inevitable and went to college to study engineering. At age 18 I picked up a newspaper and read that four of my ex-team mates, kids that I had grown up with, had all signed lucrative professional contacts with top clubs. I was gutted and the 'what could have been' feelings came rushing back. I needed an escape route, so yes, that was the reason for joining the Army. I told my dad at the time that it was purely a career move to enhance my engineering ambitions (joining the Royal and Electrical Mechanical Engineers).
So how did you go from being an Army Engineer to playing for Borussia Monchengladbach, especially after you had been declared unfit to play football several years earlier?
It all happened by accident really. I was posted to Wildenwrath, Germany (near Gladbach on the Belgium and Dutch borders) and was appointed the sports liaison officer for the unit. One day, as part of a local community project, I asked Gladbach if they would like to visit the camp and play against a British Army team. They sent their under 18's and it all progressed from there - they invited my back to their club, I had a kick around with their first team, and that one off visit soon turned into a regular occurrence. The Army training had somehow strengthened my knee joints, but that said, I also had an arrangement with Gladbach whereby I only trained for one day per week. It all worked fine for about 3 months but then the old problem raised its head again. Plan B quickly came into play, no training whatsoever, just turn up on a Saturday and wear thick stretch bandages around both knees. After nine months of that the club Doctor gave his final verdict - I was finished.
And that was the stage where you first entered the coaching arena, working with the boys at Gladbach?
Yes - from that very first day when their under 18's arrived at our camp I was impressed with their youth set-up. They pulled up in a luxury coach decked out in the team colours with BM Gladbach Boys Club emblazoned along the side. All of the young players were dressed very smartly in club suits and ties - and their discipline, both on and off the field, was impeccable. This was vastly different to the UK way of doing things and I was keen to learn more. It was an eye-opening experience and something which has stayed with me ever since. Not only that, but I also got the opportunity to become a skill coach with the senior players - and I was only 20 years old. At that time Scottish players were renowned throughout the world for their wing skills and having spent my entire childhood learning the art of being a left-winger this was something that the management team at Gladbach wanted to teach their players - close control dribbling skills, quick change of pace, confidence with both feet, and accurate crossing whilst running at speed.
Again, you make a miraculous recovery and end up playing for Standard Liege?
Not exactly a full recovery, I had rested for a while. When I was at Gladbach we played Liege in a pre-season friendly and I became friends with a couple of their players who lived near the camp. Although coaching with Gladbach I was no longer registered as a player, so when fully fit again, I played two tournament matches for Liege and then later worked with their academy boys during the evening.
I later met you in 1977 in Maastricht when you played at the International Tapien Tournament for the Army and knocked out our local professional club MVV. How come you ended up in Holland?
I was promoted by the Army and posted to the NATO base at Maastricht. Shortly after my arrival I was asked to put together a team for that tournament so I rounded up all the best British players I could find in both Germany and Holland. Again, it was circumstances, and I ended up with MVV on a part-time basis.
From there to PSV, but with a different approach this time?
Yes, I was initially going to turn down the opportunity because I new it would be short lived. Playing the odd amateur game was fine, but the higher up the professional ladder you go the less room there is for weakness, and there was no way that my knee would last the distance.
I watched you playing in that debut match. It was certainly different and your team mates seemed confused by it all?
The manager briefed me beforehand to just do what I was good at . . . pick up the ball on the touchline, run at their defenders, take them on, and whizz the ball into the box, and not to worry about any complaints from my team mates. Not one single player spoke to me during the pre-match briefing, even though a lot of them spoke good English. I just sat there pretending to understand what the manager was saying to the others and kept myself to myself. For some strange reason, I was less nervous than normal, but looking back, I now put that down to the fact that I new this wasn't going to last. If I had a bad game it didn't matter. Unlike the others I wasn't trying to build a long-term future in the game. After about 2 minutes I picked the ball up on the far touchline, ignored the shouts to pass the ball, ran at their first defender, and once past him, waited for the second one to commit himself before hitting it around him and then whipping the ball low and hard across the six yard line. I could hear the noise of the crowd and then on glancing back I saw the manager screaming at our strikers to get forward quicker. The manager seemed happy, but I wasn't sure about my colleagues. I was undecided what to do, ignore the boss and just pass the ball for the remainder of the game, or continue to go on these mad runs. It didn't take long to decide, because every time we got possession, the boss kept shouting instructions to get the ball out to me on the wing. Yes, I had a good game, and my new team mates soon accepted me as one of the boys - they even started to speak English.
Were PSV aware of your injury background, and if so, what precautions were taken?
Yes, I didn't hide anything. I told them on the very first day. After the initial medical they recommended that I undergo the necessary operations, but in the interim period it was agreed that I wouldn't train, just play in a few friendly matches. This is the first time that I have admitted this, but after that first game I went to a private clinic in Holland and made an arrangement to have special pain injections before each future match. Without those, there was no way I could play football. For any young kids reading this, pain killers are a big, no, no, Although they may relieve the pain for a short period of time you are also causing immense damage to your body - in my case I was wearing away the damaged padding around the knees until it became virtually bone on bone. Time has moved on significantly now, if fact, today, modern keyhole surgery could have solved my knee problems very easily.
THE MOVE INTO COACHING
You lasted about 12 months then once again went back to a coaching role?
If honest, I lasted a lot longer than I originally expected, but that was purely down to the pain injections - and when the effect of them wore off during the week I was in a bad way. I had a dilemma, have the operation on my knees and maybe never play again, or continue with the pain injections and damage my health. After 12 months the club told me to have the operation, and it was then that the big decision was made - I told them that I was quitting the game. As was the case at Gladbach, I was very lucky to get the opportunity to make a sideways move and join their backroom team as a part-time technical skill coach. It was similar to my position at Gladbach but with the added role of identifying skill weaknesses and individual programming right through the academy to the top senior players. As a general coach you would normally work with the full squad at a single session, but my role was to observe players during training and matches, identify their weak areas, and during the week provide them with one- on-one specialist training. At times, I would be working with just one player, at most, no more than four at a time. All of this was possible because of a special planned training schedule where time was set out each week for either fitness, team, group, or individual training - it was different from week to week and that made life a lot more interesting.
So why were you singled out for this specific role?
They were aware of my coaching role at Gladbach
and that I had also worked with their specialist sports psychologists, which was something that PSV wanted to incorporate
into their system.
Around that time there is no question that the Netherlands had developed the most skilful players in the world, but they always seemed to struggle against German opposition.
Was it a cultural thing? Did they train differently? No, they simply copied a programme used by the Americian olympic team.
I initially started out as before, specialising in dribbling skills, crossing, etc, but it then gradually progressed across the full skill range. Where some would be claiming excellent individual performances, I was always looking for fault and planning how I could improve their skill level even further. This led to me assessing young kids moving up to the pro ranks and also pinpointing weak areas amongst the senior players. Over time a clever player will be able to hide his weak areas and compensate for them with cleverly practised drills, and to the uninitiated, this can be very difficult to spot. However, at the very highest level, you will eventually be found out. I remember once saying to a player (a Dutch international who shall remain nameless), "why didn't you shoot with your left foot during that move in the first half"?. He didn't reply, just stared at me and smiled, because he new what was coming next. I picked up a ball which just so happened to be lying next to the side wall and said, "okay, let's see how good that left foot is shall we". Suffice it say that he failed the fist exercise . . . and the second . . . and threafter we spent many hours having fun doing special routines. Even the very best can get better.
From the main PSV base you then moved onto the Maastricht Academy?
It was closer to home and PSV wanted to develop the Maastricht region as part of their academy network - a feeder school. No more travelling and just three evenings per week, it was perfect. It was an amazing experience working with those 5 to 12 year olds, all of whom were totally dedicated and regimented in their approach to development, and I stayed with them right up until I left the Army 13 months later.
BACK IN THE UK - GIVES UP FOOTBALL
When I said goodbye to you and your wife I remember you saying that you were going to make a fresh start back in the UK away from football altogether and would never kick a ball again - surely that wasn't true?
Not only did I give up football, but also
engineering. My experience in the Army had taught me that you
can't balance two careers at the same time. The knee situation meant that I was never going
to make it as a player, and at 24, I was far too young to get involved
with the UK professional game as a coach - so a completely new start, new area, new career, and no football
- I never mentioned to anybody that I had previously played/coached the game at senior level.
In the 6 years that I spent overseas I never once returned to the UK, and at this time of my life, been there, done it, seen it, I had no intention of ever going overseas again, but as you know, I did eventually make several trips back to Holland to see some old friends and to also do some research for my Grass Roots Report in 1995.
MAKES A RETURN TO FOOTBALL COACHING
THE GRASSROOTS REPORT 1995
Another move - giving up your new career and going back into football, this time as a full-time Development and Technical Consultant?
It was 1994, I had just got divorced, and the time seemed right to once again have a fresh start. Football was in the blood and I no longer had any family commitments or responsibilities. The British game was dying on its feet and the old traditional development layers were crumbling, so using my previous experience of working in both Germany and Holland, I decided to put together a plan that would enhance our future structure (Grass Roots Report 1995).
Basically, it highlighted several fundemental faults in our system at that time and recommended numerous proposed changes around a new SSD (systematic structured development) layout - a fixed set of principles and concepts laid out within a framework for the development of young UK footballers age 5 - 21 that incorporated a mixture of both the traditional British and modern continental style coaching techniques (replicated in the latest report, Kicking Into The Future 2010).
That now infamous Grass Roots 1995 Report ruffled a few feathers and later proved to be quite controversial, especially amongst the English football authorities?
They were resting on their laurels and in
a state of denial. During the same period that the report covered
(1965 to 1995) Britain started to lose all of its famous manufacturing
bases, Leyland, BSA, Triumph, shipbuilding, etc, and the immediate
response from those sectors was to wave the union jack and claim
that they were still the best in the world. Football was no different
and they also had a staunch resistance towards any form of change.
I said that the coaching courses had to change - they claimed that they were the best in the world. I said that youth development had to become a totally separate entity so that when managers were sacked they retained continuity within the youth structure - they claimed that the English set-up was the best in the world. I recommended that we have specialist junior/youth coaches working within a new academy structure - they said that was silly talk. I said that unless we address the real grass roots foundation of our game we would soon have a large influx of young foreign players to the detriment of our kids - they said that would never happen.
Disillusioned with the professional youth set-up in the UK, and the response to your Development Report, you then decided to open up your own football school?
Soccer Kids started shortly after the 1995
Report was published and came about as a direct result of critics
telling me that it was only a paper document and couldn't work
in the UK. Basically, it was foreign rubbish and had no place
in the British coaching system.
With the backing of the University of Sheffield I formed the first SK school in Sheffield (1996), and from that point onwards it just escalated; national press coverage, thousands of enquiries from coaches, and a franchise plan to expand the concept UK wide. But then the confrontations started. Firstly, a threatening telephone call (later traced to a member of the English national backroom team), and then several of our new franchise locations had to be cancellled just before set-up (traced back to local professional clubs telephoning their friends within the respective local authorities to refuse us access to facilities). And so it went on. I even received a telephone call from the Scottish coaching sector to warn me away from opening any schools in Scotland. In short, if I tried to compete with the SFA youth set-up they would drive me out of business. At the end of the day, I decided to sell all the franchises (believe it or not to professional clubs), and focus all my attention on a single private school. In the early years that produced a substantial number of talented kids for the pro club academy scheme, but now, because of poaching (we have a 70% turnaround per annum as local clubs and others tap up our most talented kids), it has mainly become a starter school - getting hundreds of young kids (age 4 - 12) involved with regular football training and helping them to move forward in the game. That said, we are still the largest single football school in the UK and continue to be the most successful in terms of producing young talent.