Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Man Who Loved Islands - Book Review

The wonders of social media are such, that you can become friends with people you've never met. Maybe that's too bold to call David Ross a friend, perhaps an enjoyable online presence. Yes David Ross is an enjoyable online presence.

Mine and David's lives became intertwined through a twitter account by the name of @bythemins and David's insistence that key events in football matches tended to happen in the 67th minute. David was adamant on this fact, he probably still is now. Anyways I digress, this little twitter account now strides across the world wide web like a behemoth ( if you're interested!) and mine and David's paths don't cross as much as I would like.  However. When David has the time to share his thoughts for this website, man I've got to tell you something. The page comes alive. I don't know how he does it. David Ross has a gift. The man is an excellent story-teller. To tell you the truth I'm jealous.

In David's previous two books, The Last Days of Disco and The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas he transported me back to 1980s Kilmarnock.  I've never been to Kilmarnock, nor do I want to go. But David's writing has always made me feel like I lived there.
David's story-telling has a charm.  It warms the heart. You turn the page or those of you with a kindle, press the screen, with a smile on the face eagerly anticipating the next page.

I'm not going to tell you much about The Man Who Loved Islands, because if you've read the first two books of the trilogy, then you must surely be anticipating this third one.  All I'm going to say is it's as good as you hoped, if not better.  For those of you, who have not read one of David's books. Please go and buy them, I'd even say don't wait for a 3 for 2 deal. They're that good!
I'll end this book review, well it was meant to be a book review, but it feel's like an ode to David by simply saying, I cannot wait for what David Ross decides to do next.  I'm sure I'm not the only one thinking that.

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Wide Boy Diary with Dion Sembie-Ferris

Whilst some non-league clubs splash the cash, looking for short term gain, other non-league sides are happy to give youth a chance and entrust a first team place with a young professional from a league side.

Dion Sembie-Ferris has been tearing it up for Concord Rangers since arriving on loan from Colchester United earlier in the season, but what is a normal week like for Dion? Well I spent some time with him to find out...


It's an early start on a Monday, as I go into training for 9am, so I can do some prepare myself for the session ahead with some light stretching and mobility work. If I haven't played at the weekend I will go out with the Under 23's later in the morning, but if I've had a game on Saturday, I'll just do some gym work to cool my body down.

Whilst on a Monday, the boys are quite curious on how I've got on at the weekend, and they will always ask what the game was like, as not many of them have experienced first team football. I think it's vital that as a young pro you get experience playing men's football as it is a world away from playing U23's.  However the good thing about Colchester is that they always give their own players a chance, so hopefully my opportunity isn't too far away!

After I've lunched and showered I go home from training, but my day isn't done! I go to a gym which is close to my house where I will continue to mobilise my body, which involves massaging of the muscles, dynamic stretches in a cold pool, then I will unwind with a jacuzzi and a sauna.


Training on a Tuesday would be light for me, as I have training with Concord Rangers in the evening, so I'll do the technical part and some possession based play, before stepping out before the small-sided games begin.
There isn't much difference between the training at professional and non-league level.  Both are based around technique and possession. At any level keeping the ball is vital.  However on a Thursday at Concord the emphasis changes and is geared towards our opponent on the Saturday, and we work on areas that can give us the best chance of victory, be that working on our shape or working on our attacking moves.
Tuesday is a long day for me, as I won't get home till after 10pm, and as I've done two sessions I will have a cold bath to relieve my muscles.


Is a day off at Colchester, but not for me! I always go to the gym and work on things specific to my position on the pitch.  It's key for me to always keep my explosive pace. It's one of my biggest attributes and working in the gym to maintain and better my pace is vital for me.
When I was younger I tried to base my style of play on Thierry Henry, he was my biggest idoal and I loved the way he ran with power and elegance on the ball and the affect he had on other team-mates around him.  Nowadays I don't have a specific player I look up to, but when I watch football on the TV I try to focus on the wingers to see what they do, and implement some of their good things into my game.


Today is very similar to the Tuesday, and it's very much the same routine.  As I said before Thursday evening's are focused with an eye on the game on Saturday.  Flan and Glen (Adam Flanagan and Glen Alzapeidi) are always giving me good feedback on how I'm progressing and it's a great motivator for me to go out their on a Saturday and improve on my previous performance.
I think what I need to play at the highest level is to just be positive and believe in myself sometimes, that's my biggest downfall, so any encouragement I get from the coaching staff at Colchester or Concord is really beneficial to me.
Playing regular men's football I'm now finding myself believing in myself and willing to try things on the ball! I'm always going to give 100% so when the games over I can look back and think I couldn't have given anymore.
Again I'll get home late and have a cold bath to relax my muscles (Writer's note - always in the bath this boy!)


As it's the day before a game I make sure that I train well so I'm well prepared for the game on the Saturday.  At Colchester we do small-sided games with the U23s and some of the youth team, so most of the time is spent playing inside in the dome at the training ground.
Training will finish at 130pm and then I'll go home, unwind, have a good meal and get a decent night's sleep ahead of the game tomorrow (Writer's Note .... no bath!?!)


Game Day! So I'll prepare with pasta and toast for breakfast with a smoothie and then I'll take a banana and some water for me for the journey towards the stadium as it was a long journey to Hungerford (Interview took place just after Hungerford away match) to make sure I have some small snacks to keep my energy levels for the match.
Long distance travel can affect some people, as it can cause tight muscles due to sitting down too long or even cause tiredness, but it shouldn't be used as an excuse for starting a game slowly. You can start a game slowly at your own ground! It's all down to getting in the right mindset, plus you have plenty of time shake-off any lethargy after travelling if you warm up properly before the game.
The dressing room is quite loud before a game, the music's on, Hoody is in charge of the music and it's quite decent to be fair, the boys are chatting away and it's quite relaxed beforehand, but as it get's closer to kick-off things get focused.  The Gaffa gives us our instructions and we go out onto the pitch fully prepared and ready to win the game.
After the game and on the way back home on the coach, I will wear my compression socks which will help my muscle recovery. Then once home I'll have a cold bath (Writer's Note...there it is!)


Depending on how long I've played on the Saturday, I will use the Sunday to completely rest, or I will again go to the gym and do another pool session. I'll just chill on a Sunday evening, watch some TV and get ready to go for the next week ahead!

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Keeping a Diary with Bailey Vose

The non-league game is littered with young professionals from league clubs trying to make their way in the game, however you don't find many young goalkeeper's out on loan.  Bailey Vose is an exception.  Bailey trains with Brighton during the week, and on match-day's he's between the sticks for Concord Rangers in the Conference South.

So what happen's during a normal week for Bailey? I spent some time with the young goalkeeper and found out what goes on, and how he hopes to become a top-level goalkeeper...


Monday is normally a game day for Brighton Under 23's, so this involves having a pre match meal at 4pm. Then we have a team meeting around 4:30pm, just prepping us on the opposition. We would then head to the stadium to get ready for the game with kick off being at 7pm.

However as I'm now on loan at Concord, my day is different. My day starts with breakfast at 9am, from then onwards i will prepare myself for training at 10:15am. On a Monday training would be with the first team keepers unless they have a game on the Tuesday. Training would last for about 1 hour and 30 minutes, however, I would only spend 30-40 minutes with the goalkeeper coach. 
When we train with the rest of the team we normally have a small sided game. In addition to this, if any of the strikers want to of extra training then I would jump in goal for them.

There is a variety of strikers at Brighton, target men, pacey forwards, but I tell you they're all exceptionally good at finishing. They don’t whack the ball hard, but they hit the ball with enough pace to beat you, and is in the corners 99% of the time. It's all about precision. I can only improve my own performance from this additional practice, so it works for both the forwards and myself. 

After training we then have lunch which is available from 12-1pm. After lunch, I will then do a gym session for 45 minutes. My gym sessions normally work my lower body. This is because I want to improve the power in my legs, to give me a better chance to reaching the top corners. In my opinion, my strongest part of my game is my distribution. I think i am very good with the ball at my feet, as I didn’t turn a goalkeeper until I was 15 (*hang on - writer interjects*) 

"What do you mean you only starting playing in goal at 15!?" 

Well I've always liked the position, and played their occasionally growing up, it's just when the keeper for my Sunday team got badly injured, I thought yeah I'll go in goal, and it's gone on from there! Do I fancy myself out on pitch now? Haha. I don't know I love being a keeper now. But playing out on pitch for so long as a boy has definitely helped me out.


Tuesday starts exactly the same as Monday with training beginning again at 1015am. This session will start with goalkeepers working on our positioning and technical ability. This will be for around 45 minutes and will then be followed by going with the team for a game. 
After lunch I would then be able to leave the training ground to go home and recover, but I like to hang around after training to practice my kicking and other bits of my game.

On some Tuesdays the first team may have a game, for example on the 28th they're at home to Newcastle, so the whole 23 squad would attend. This is a great way to observe the first team keepers, watch them warm up and see what you have to do the reach the top level. 
Furthermore, if I play for the Under 23's on a Monday then today would be the day I sit down with my goalkeeper coach to watch through the game, as all the games are filmed. Again, looking on what I done well and what I need to improve on. 


This is a rest day.

"You're not just getting away with that! What goalkeeper do you look to as an inspiration/role model?"

For me, the keeper I would base my game on would be Joe Hart. This is because I think he is a great shot stopper, he shows that he can dominate his defence and I feel that his distribution is good as well. A good goalkeeper in my opinion is that he has to be a excellent shot stopper because that is our job you've got to keep the ball out of the net. It's that simple really.

"Some games you might only have to face one shot, so how important is it to stay focussed?"

Concentration is vital for a keeper as like you say you may not have nothing to do all game and then suddenly you are called into action and you need to deliver. Thats for me what makes a top keeper, when you are called upon you deliver. All  goalkeepers can make saves but the top keepers make the difference in games, they make the vital saves when they're needed and win their team points. 


Training would again begin at 10:15am for me, however this  would be a lighter session for me as I train with Concord in the evening. Lunch would be taken at 12pm and after that, I would head off to train at Concord.

The training at Concord follows a similar pattern as it does at Brighton, I'll spend around 30 minutes with the goalkeeper coach Andy Young, and after we have done some technical work, I would then join the full team for a game.

Training and playing at Conference South level is really helping me improve the facets of my game, which I think need improving the most and that's communication and dealing with crosses. It's vital at this level that I communicate with my defence, they need to know when I'm coming for corners etc, and where I want my wall positioned. The team are relying on me. At Conference level there are so many crosses going into the box, it's giving me plenty of chances to improve my game, which I think it steadily is in this area.


Training on a Friday would be about preparing me for the game on Saturday. This would include some handling work, shot stopping, some crossing and some kicking. After lunch I go home and unwind.  I try not to think about the game on Saturday, I like to just chill out and watch a film or some TV.  I'll then go to bed and wake up the next day with myself all refreshed.


Saturday is a game day for Concord. Pre match would be around 12pm for me, meeting at the ground for 1:30pm. There is always a member of Brighton that will come and watch me, this may be my goalkeeper coach or a Brighton scout. If my goalkeeper coach comes and watches me then we would talk through the game on what I did well and what things I need to improve on. If a Brighton scout comes and watches me then he would contact my goalkeeper coach and we would go through it later in the week. 

The main difference that I notice between non-league and the U23's is the pace of the game. The pace in the Conference is a lot quicker because the players don’t get as much time on the ball as they do compared to under 23 games. Physically, the conference is a lot stronger as your playing with men. However, U23 football is a lot more technical. 

The movement of player's at both levels is very good, however a lot of the non-league strikers like the ball into their feet as they have the physicality to defend it.  You can tell when a striker is a good player, when you see their body shape when they're striking a ball.  Sometimes I can tell where they are going to shoot through their body position, however better players know that the keeper is trying to read their body position, and try to trick us. For example, if a strike shapes up to shoot in the far corner, but in the last second changes to squeeze it in at the near post. Another key component of a striker is that movement off the ball, the best forward I've played against so far, Saido Berahino is excellent at that. He is an outstanding centre forward.

A big difference is coping mentally from the abuse you get from the opposition spectators, which you don’t get to experience at U23 football. The abuse I get behind the goal is always funny. I get called every name under the sun which is just standard. But I remember playing for Whyteleafe when I was 17 and as I’ve gone to get the ball out of the net, the opposition supporters threw all beer over me, that was probably the worse, but I’m sure it will get worse!


Sunday would again start with breakfast at 9am and training being at 10:15. As it is a day after a game, training would be light and would involve some handling and some diving. Furthermore, on a Sunday, for part of my recovery I go in the gym and do some upper body but also go in the ice baths for my muscles to recover. Then I'm all set to start again on Monday!

Friday, 27 January 2017

Concord Rangers: The Battle to Stay Up.

Let's start with a quiz question.  Look at the above picture, taken at the end of the 2015/2016 season. How many of those player's still play for Concord?  I'll answer it for you. It's four.  Therein lies the problem of Concord's current season. Yes playing at the Conference South level with the lowest budget in the league does come with difficulties, but for a team of Concord's size to constantly be losing player's through transfers, or long term injuries it's going to have an effect eventually.

Since I've followed Concord thing's have generally been on an upward curve.  The success of the Danny Cowley years, followed by an excellent first season in charge by Adam Flanagan. But this season, oh this season.  Where to begin? Let's go back to the picture. Ben Greenhalgh and Lewis Taaffe two key components in 2015/2016, spirited away by other clubs. Tom Stephen the supporter's player of the year last season - did his ACL in pre-season. Out for the season. The goalkeeper, Ben McNamara, he won the Chairman's Player of the Season in 2015/2016. Now not being horrible to Ben, but I don't know what happened to him in the Summer, it's like his twin brother turned up at Concord at the start of this season. Ben's now left the club.

Concord hover just outside the relegation zone, having played more games than their rivals, but what remains at Concord is probably the key to their survival. Whilst Concord have lost player's left, right and centre through one mean's or another. The Concord heart still remains. "I've never been involved in a situation such as the one we are in now, but I do know through speaking with others and being around football long enough what it takes to get through a period that we're experiencing at the moment" said club stalwart Steve King "We need to ensure we work hard on the training pitch firstly, and then on matchday we must be determined to win our individual battles on the pitch. If we can do that, the team has enough quality to get ourselves out of the mess we find ourselves in" confirmed Steve, when I asked him how Concord work their way out of this sticky situation.

What Concord do you have through Steve, and the captain James White are individuals who will run through walls for Concord, they're not the only two, but it's their voices you can hear loudest on a Saturday afternoon, "For me, as skipper, I've got to keep the group close and make sure your willing to help your mate out on the pitch. This is no time for individuals now." said Whitey. Now that team ethic runs deep in Concord, it always has done.  Actually from the player's on the pitch, to the people behind the bar, to the volunteers who give up their precious time on a weekend to help the club, everyone pulls in the same direction. But what about those people who pay to watch the matches, now admittedly there's not many of them, but I tell you what, they don't moan or boo at the team during the match, unlike some "bigger" teams supporters. I won't name those team's supporters here, it would be wrong (I will it's Ebbsfleet and Chelmsford). "A club the size of Concord depends on everyone, there a few that keep the club ticking over constantly, however everyone is important, we are going through a difficult phase and want the staff and supporters to keep faith that we do care about the club and the league we are in. Everything is put on to help us, so there can be no excuses from the players, we need to perform to the qualities that Concord are known for" again James White, see the skipper of the club, knows exactly what everyone feels.

Now I don't think I would be writing this blog, if it wasn't for one thing.  You see, Concord have dropped, I say dropped, lost is better.  Concord have lost 8 points from goals conceded in the 88th minute or later in games this season.  That has happened across 5 matches this term. You'd expect it happening maybe once or twice in a season as that's football, but 5 times. You're sitting there thinking of "for fucks sake". That's the fan's view, but how about the player's, again Steve King "There's no clear reason why this happens. When it starts to happen you put it down to bad luck and not having the rub of the green, but ultimately it's a desire or concentration issue. At this level you need to have 100% focus every second of the game or you will be punished. Added to that you need to want to die for the cause whether it be getting on the end of a delivery to score a goal, or throw your body on the line to block a goal bound effort defensively, which as a team we haven't been doing well enough."

Concord still have sixteen games to play this season, so there is plenty of time left for them to dig themselves out of the hole they find themselves in, but are the player's confident?  I'll leave the final word to firstly Kingy. " I'm confident, there is a lot of quality in the changing room. We just need to get the mental side of things right and once we put a couple of results together I'm certain we will be fine."

Secondly the Captain James White, boomed out this statement. It gets the heart pumping this. "Yes, being honest now if any player in the side has committed to relegation, then please leave the club. There is a lot of football to be played and I can guarantee we will all fight for the right to play in this league next season."


Friday, 13 January 2017

Non League Life with Jody Brown

What does it take to coach, manage or play in Non-League football? How high are the playing standard these days?

In the first of a series of interviews, I'm speaking to Non-League managers, coaches and players to find out what makes the Non-League world tick.  First up is Jody Brown who has managed/coached from Step 1 down to Step 6. Jody is currently managing Heybridge Swifts in the Ryman League Division One North.

I first asked Jody, how does he deal with what seems an ongoing turnover of players at the lower level of Non-League football.

"Unfortunately it is part and parcel of football at Ryman Level. It happens less the higher you go. It becomes difficult for the coaches that believe in working with a team on the training ground, and developing players over a period of time. There are few contracts, and players have little reason to remain at clubs where they aren't playing regularly.
This season at Heybridge we have suffered with injuries this season, but we still have eleven/twelve players with over twenty appearances this season, and that's despite losing three/four regulars to rival clubs.  I honestly believe that the club's that manage to retain a consistent group over a two/three year period have a far better chance of success on and off the field.
Supporters want to bond with the players too, and it's great when that happens. However for that to happen players need to play 50/100/200 games for a club to develop that relationship."

That bond between players and supporters, how important is that and does it breed success?

"When you get an "all in it" together mentality between club, players and supporters, you have the ingredients for success. Danny Cowley's recent successes have illustrated that, and Rod Stringer is developing it at Chelmsford.
In my short time at Concord Rangers, I could see that the Steve Cawley's and Tony Stokes of this world had a tremendous relationship with their fans. It breeds loyalty in both directions. The players then play for the fans, and the fans support them even during the tough times. It's a great feeling to feel that your winning games for a greater cause than just yourself, and that bond and positivity is worth plenty of points over a season."

You mentioned about losing 3/4 regulars this season to rival club's, is that kind of problem exclusive to the Ryman North?

"The lower the level the more it happens. Less money, fewer contracts, less restriction of player movements and approaches - all adds up to less commitment. Plus players that play higher up the pyramid often have a more professional approach to the game and appreciate the benefits of stability and the importance of being durable enough to earn your place in the team. There will always be players that move for money at every level, I understand that, but having to fight for your place shouldn't be a reason to move on if you believe in your ability."

How effective is the seven day approach? Is there another alternative?

"Not sure really. I think it's fairly common place for a club to have already spoken with their target, whether directly or indirectly. The rule obviously protects a club from being ripped to shreds over night, but in terms of aiding the long term security of a club, or to allow foundations to be built over a period of time, the rule does very little. The alternative would be to put in a transfer window all the way down to Step 4 (Ryman League North/South). Then manager's recruitment, coaching, management and tactical performance would be tested.  The way it is currently isn't too dissimilar to playing a computer game, allowing clubs with money to take another club's players to regularly and too easily. It also completely deflects from a coaches ability to improve player's and teams.  It's a case of lose a game, go out and buy three new players. So in reality, it minimises the effect of a coach can have and it creates a very short term mentality."

With the idea of a Non-League transfer window, do you think there would be a danger of the wealthier clubs just stock-piling players for the sake of it?

"I think that happens anyway. Player's are more likely to be content as a bit-part squad player when earning £200/300/400 plus per week. There are obvious examples in every level."

The role of an agent is becoming increasingly prominent at Non-League level. Do they help or hinder when managing a team?

"Like any walk of life, there are good and bad agents. I know some good ones, but you do hear a lot less from them when things are challenging.
Agents that force or hunt for moves, rather than mentor their players to play games, act professionally, perform consistently and get noticed, do become a hinderance. They can create false hope, and unrealistic expectations in players. Obviously there are massive Non-League success stories that have probably only come about as a result of a proactive agent.
In my opinion, moving clubs regularly has never helped any player. The best thing a player can do is find a manager they feel they can excel and develop under, and then work hard, perform consistently and opportunities will follow. Possibly there are too many agents nowadays, but people need to make a living, and I can appreciate it from both sides of the fence.

What are characteristics you're looking for, when you want to add a player to the squad?

"Personally I look for technical ability, ambition, previous pedigree and the potential to develop into a better player. I've rarely had the financial support to look for the ready made winner, so it's been a case of working together to improve. In a perfect world, I'd recruit established players between 22-32 years of age, big athletic, technically sound players that know me, know each other, have an affiliation with the club, and a track record of winning. However that is very difficult."

Do you scout player's yourself and are player's signed on word of mouth?

"I think player's do get signed on word of mouth. I've only done it once personally and wasn't comfortable.  I see manager's and club staff at games, so scouting does take place. Personally I fall a little bit short on that element of management at the moment, due to the fact that I take every training session.  But it's an area that I think the club's with sound infrastructure excel in."

"You've coached at all levels in the Non-League pyramid, is there much difference in the quality of football being played?"

The biggest difference is the preparation the higher you go up.  The use of video analysis, scouting and game specific sessions are the norm, as opposed to only for special occasions and big games. The players are better conditioned, coaches are better qualified, facilities are better, crowds are bigger, and the coverage is more intense each time you climb another level.  That breeds ambition, professionalism and a higher tempo on match day, which then becomes inherent."

What challenges does each level bring to a manager?

"The more money a player is paid, the more committed he is to the game and his own development in most cases. That is probably the biggest challenge you face lower down the pyramid. I personally find it difficult to find the balance between my expectations in terms of training, conditioning, preparation, and the club's and player's expectations."

Can you give an example of that?

Sure, not being able to prepare your team because player's are at work, or not pick your strongest team because a player is on holiday isn't an issue you face at the best clubs at Step 2 or any clubs at Step 1. Training facilities also generally improve, which saves those arguments with club groundsman about getting on the pitch to do your shape work etc."

But going up through the levels, also bring's it challenges?

"Of course, there are pitfalls higher up for managers. Personally I didn't deal with the supporters or media particularly well when I was at level, and I've tried to learn from that experience, and hope it's something I am improving whilst working hard with people to rebuild Heybridge Swifts on and off the field."

So what is the key to progressing through the levels?

"If you aspire to, and have the capabilities to do things professionally, and work with a good support network, committed, talented players, and building a club as opposed to just building a team - get as high as you possibly can.  Managing non contract players, without money, appropriate facilities and limited support staff can massively detract from your ability to work with your team and individuals in the way you would like to. Even Jose Mourinho could not win Ryman Division One without money, staff, or a place to train. To succeed as an individual or a club following promotions, I think you have to raise the bar and consider all of the above. If you just continue the way you have at the lower level, it won't be enough. Each jump is quite a significant one."

© Chris Clark 2017

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Whatever Happened to Football's Next Star?

"I remember the first time I was pulled into a first team training session during the show, it was so surreal. I found myself on a team with Mario Balotelli and Ricardo Quaresma playing up against Lucio and Javier Zanetti. It's no coincidence that you can't play your best football when you're completely star-struck." Ben Greenhalgh was taking part in Sky One's 2010 reality TV program "Football's Next Star". Ben had impressed in a trial in Kent earlier in the year, and had been chosen as one of forty young footballers who could be the "next big thing" and end up being rewarded with a professional contract with Inter Milan, who at the time were managed by Jose Mourinho.

"That day I wasn't taking anything seriously" Ben reminisces about the trial day back in 2009 "Jamie Redknapp approached me and said I'd been selected. I was like the only one out of about 300 lads. I took it all in my stride, I wasn't fazed by anything as many things were going my way at the time. I'd signed a professional contract at Welling when I was sixteen, and I had just been selected for England U18's, so maybe the reason I remained so composed during the whole process was due to the fact that I felt I had places to fall back to."

Over the next weekend the forty young footballers were whittled down to ten to take part in the TV show, and Ben was chosen. By his own admittance he had a good game in the hour long match, he set up a goal for fellow finalist Hicham Abdellah. This was all part of the 1st episode aired in January 2010, and the episode ended with each player being presented with an Inter Milan shirt and the boys jetted off to Italy to take part in the TV program.  In the following episodes player's were eliminated until only two remained, and the series culminated with Ben winning and earning himself a six-month contract at then Serie A, Champions League and Coppa Italia winners Inter Milan.

"The first team would give me a lot of confidence whenever I trained with them, and they all understood what approach was best for a 17/18 year old stepping up into this level. Patrick Vieira was fantastic for me, as things had happened so quickly for me, I hadn't had time to learn Italian. Patrick translated most things for me on the training pitch, so I understood what I needed to do." Ben's first team training opportunities were limited as he spent a majority of the time training with the reserves, who were mostly young foreign players as well. "I was finding it really hard to adapt to the Italian culture, I didn't speak hardly any of the language and neither did any of my reserve team-mates. It was tough. I lived with Mattia Destro who was tipped for big things at Inter, but just as I got to know him and build a friendship with him, he was sold to Genoa."

Once the six months had passed, Ben had done enough to earn another year's contract at Inter Milan, which included a loan period at Como who at the time were playing in Serie C. "Como was more realistic for me, let's be serious I was never going to break into that Inter team. I was going into the Como team as someone on loan from Inter, that's quite a tag to have. It was definitely my big chance. No-one spoke English and I had to really immerse myself into the culture. I ended up loving my time there, I was nearly fluent in the language and I was playing really well." In twelve games towards the end of the 2010/2011 season Greenhalgh scored eight times.  But his time in Italy was coming to an end "Como were in real financial difficulty and the first team players hadn't been paid for three months. I couldn't take the risk of staying there not being paid.  If I was being paid to play, there is a fair chance I'd still be out there now." In fact during the 2010/2011 season Serie B and Serie C was awash with a number of sides facing financial ruin, in Serie B; Ascoli and Ancona were expelled from the League due to financial irregularities, and only Ascoli were reinstated after appeal. Meanwhile in Serie C, Como were deducted 1 point for financial irregularities. Como were not alone, as many as seven sides were deducted points for improper financial information. However Ravenna were deducted seven points for match-fixing, whilst Alessandria were demoted to last place in the table for the same offence.  Whilst the football on the pitch may have been good for Greenhalgh, off the pitch things in Italy were tumultuous.

Ben returned to England and during the summer of 2011 had trials at Brighton and Birmingham, without any success. Greenhalgh returned to where it all began for him Welling United.  Ben's time in Italy had served him well, as his set piece delivery had improved and was a constant threat for Ben in non-league football. "I'd worked really hard on it during my time in Italy. It all comes down to confidence, if you have confidence in your delivery and so do your management and players then there is no pressure." Ben could lean on words of praise from Patrick Vieira which not many non-league player's can call on - "Patrick always told me to be confident on the ball, and have faith in my ability. Whenever I spoke to him at Inter, he always drilled that into me."

Ben's left wing wizardry and set-piece delivery was noticed by Scottish Premier League side Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the summer of 2013 who were then being managed by Terry Butcher "Terry managed the way he played the game, he wore his heart on his sleeve and showed so much passion for the game it was admirable.  He loved his wingers as well, which was good news for me. It's probably why I got on so well with him, and I was given great opportunities. However just as I was breaking into the first team, Terry left for Hibs." Butcher's departure from Inverness affected Greenhalgh as incoming manager John Hughes did not select him and Greenhalgh was left to rot in the reserves, and despite a successful loan period at Stenhousemuir which helped Greenhalgh "get back into the swing of things", at the end of the 2013/2014 season Greenhalgh was returning back to England.

Ben spent the 2014/2015 season at Maidstone who were a team on the rise and Greenhalgh had his best scoring season to date, as he hit double figures in Maidstone's Championship winning season in the Isthmian Premier Division.  Greenhalgh was on the move again at the end of that season, and spent a year at Concord Rangers, in which he revelled in a free role given to him by manager Adam Flanagan. As Ben said earlier "If the management have confidence in your ability then you can deliver." Greenhalgh scored nineteen goals in the 2015/2016 including the winner in the Essex Senior Cup Final, and probably assisted just as many goals if not more.

Maidstone came a calling again this summer. The Kent side had now been promoted to the National League and were playing in front of crowds of over 2000 on a regular basis at their new stadium.  In six years Greenhalgh, had gone from Serie A to the National League via the Scottish Premiership, but does he still have the love for the game that day he was approached by Jamie Redknapp -  " My aim in football is to always enjoy where I'm playing, and to keep the passion for playing as high as possible which can be hard in the world of football. Maidstone have fantastic ambition and with the support we get from the fans and community, whose to say where we could end up. Full time training is something I definitely miss, but I'm constantly looking to improve my game and to keep myself in the best physical shape."

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Cowley's success is no surprise to Concord Rangers

Whilst Lincoln City ride high in the National League and look poised for a return to the Football League, the club's recent success and good form doesn't come as a shock to a team you may have not heard about on Canvey Island.

24th January 2015 was when I first encountered what can only be described as the wonder of Danny Cowley's management. His Concord side walloped big spending Whitehawk 3-0 in the National League South. To my then un-trained eyes this was ridiculous, how had Danny got this group of players punching above their weight in this Division and beating full-time sides with bigger budgets and packed with professional footballers so easily? As I was to find out, Danny had been doing this for years.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, Danny and his brother Nicky, who was his Assistant Manager were to leave Concord Rangers at the end of the 2014/2015 season to move onto National League Braintree Town. I only captured the last few months of Cowley's reign at Concord, but it had been an incredible rise up through the divisions which had begun back in 2007, when Danny Cowley was appointed Joint-Manager with Danny Scopes in the Essex Senior League. A world away from the Conference South that Concord now competed in. "When I first spoke to him, I was under no illusion that this guy would end up managing in full time football. He impressed me from day one." said Concord Chairman Antony Smith of that meeting back in 2007.

The 2007/2008 season began with Concord under the dual managership of Cowley and Scopes, there was an identikit of the kind of player the two Danny's wanted playing for Concord "We demanded that players had the right attitude and the team came first. We wanted fit lads with outstanding work rate and as we progressed through the levels the quality required for that league." Danny Scopes was only confirming what Danny Cowley said me to back in January 2015 when I first spoke to him "The players have to buy into the ethos of the club. A player's personality is more important to me than their ability."

Whilst the team battled for the Essex Senior League title with Cowley in joint charge of the team, Danny's brother Nicky joined the club.  Nicky was a tough-tackling centre-midfielder. No quarter asked. No quarter given.  "Nicky typified the spirit of our team at the time. He was definitely the type of player you'd rather have on your team than against you though, that's for sure. said Miki Hood who had also joined the club that season, in some kind of back-room coach/kit-man/physio role.
Nicky's influence on the team was immense "He was the player you would make Captain of your team on the first day of pre-season training" said Danny Scopes "He has the passion you need and every manager dreams of this from his players.  The attitude to give his best and to drive others on, to give their best on and off the pitch. He would never tolerate someone not trying, and not having the same desire on the pitch as him. He was a leader of men" This type of player typified what Cowley and Scopes wanted from their team, and this worked as Concord had a highly successful season in the Essex Senior League. They travelled to Barkingside on the last day of the season knowing that victory on that day would bring them the title - again Danny Scopes "Dan had a great understanding of when to scream and shout and when to be calm in the dressing room, I have heard and been around plenty of other managers that feel they need to shout and scream to get their point across, but they actually lose focus of what needed to be said.  At this time this game (Barkingside) was maybe and might still be one of the most important games in Danny/Nicky's management/playing career's so far. We come in at half time 0-0 and we have not been playing well, and looked nervous in our play. We were playing on a difficult pitch against a Barkingside team that 100% wanted to destroy our dream of winning the League. Danny went on to give one of the best half-time team talks I have heard as a manager or player, driving the player's on and encouraging them to go take what we had worked so hard for all season, to go and make it happen and not wait for it to happen. It was an emotional moment for everyone in that dressing room and maybe the moment that got us over the line with a 1-0 win, promotion and the start of an incredible journey."

In 2008/2009 Concord battled it out in the Ryman League Division One North, not much was expected of them.  Mid-table consolidation would have been gratefully accepted. Not for Cowley though, Concord finished a credible 5th place and a place in the league play-offs. Unfortunately Concord were defeated in the play-off final by Waltham Abbey on penalties. Concord would not be denied though and the following season they achieved promotion to the Ryman Premier League beating Enfield Town 3-1 in the play-off final.  By this time Steve King had played for Danny Cowley and with Nicky Cowley for a couple of seasons, and the centre back remembers his playing time with Nicky "We always used to fight and bicker on the pitch, but we were so successful because of it. Each of us without knowing it were driving each other on. As soon as that final whistle went, we had a cuddle and a sing-song on the way home from away matches."

As Concord moved up the levels that consequently the standard of opposition rose, so Cowley, now managing the club on his own after Danny Scopes retirement began looking for ways that Concord could beat the odds. "He left no stone un-turned.  Every minor detail was spot on. That minor detail could make the difference and his attention to detail was second to none" confirms Steve King.  But how could Concord who were a part-time club operate against the bigger sides in the division? Miki Hood who was on-hand for the majority of the training sessions at that time - "Danny will probably be the first person to tell you the limitations of working in the part-time football environment. Realistically in 3/4 hours a week, are you going to be able to make every single individual in your squad a markedly better technical footballer, more tactically astute, a more well-rounded player, and look to develop individual skills - probably not. But you can instil a team organisation, an identity, a collective understanding and belief - to make something greater than the sum of it's parts? You have to say yes, and that's what he did."

As it transpired teams could not cope with Concord's pressing game. They were hard to break down, and always carried a goal threat. They didn't know when they were beaten.  Look at Lincoln's results this season. Notice those late goals. It's not coincidence.  But back to Concord. In 2012/2013 after a slow start to the season everything clicked into place. Concord found themselves in the play-offs. An unbelievable feat for the club.  However Cowley would not let his team rest on it's laurels and congratulate themselves for making the play-offs. Towards the end of the normal season, Concord had lost 2-1 to a late winner, and Wealdstone's fans had spilled onto the pitch after they had scored. "After the game in the dressing room Danny told us we'd get a second chance. That football always gives you a chance to right a wrong, and that we'd be coming back here in the play-offs to do just that. You could sense they weren't just words for show. He was convinced. Regardless of the possible permutations of the games between then and the play-off's; he told us it was going to happen. The players and coaching staff believed it. And it happened."

Concord travelled to Wealdstone for the play-off semi final as predicted by Danny Cowley and won 2-1 in extra time "It was almost surreal. He'd already predicted it. He'd stood in front of all of us back in March and told us what was going to happen. The man's a footballing freak. He decides on what's going to happen and makes it happen." That day back in 2013 is still fresh in Miki Hood's as he re-told me the story of those Wealdstone encounters.

Danny Cowley and Concord then found themselves in a play-off final away to Lowestoft for a place in the Conference South.  This was unheard of for a team the size of Concord Rangers. Of course under Cowley Concord won and one of the goalscorer's on the day Steve King think's that win was one of Cowley's greatest achievements at the club "That play-off final win against Lowestoft stands out for me. We always tended to be underdogs against any opposition as we are such a small club compared to the others and we were never a bigger underdog than in that game. We had been beaten significantly every time we had played there, but Danny instilled a belief in the boys that it was our time and against all the odds we gained promotion. He is an excellent man-manager and can get the best out of his players."

So the 2013/2014 saw Concord Rangers playing in the Conference South for the first time in the club's history. They were dead-certs for relegation in a league which contained clubs such as Dover, Eastleigh, Bromley and Boreham Wood.  Again Cowley defied expectations and led Concord to a creditable ninth place finish.  They finished eight points away from the play-offs. A remarkable performance.  A great season in the league was topped off with Concord winning the Essex Senior Cup beating Conference side Braintree in the final. This was to be the first of three consecutive Essex Senior Cup's that Concord would win (2 under Cowley, and 1 under current manager Adam Flanagan).

The following season and what was to be Cowley's last in charge of Concord, Danny was joined by his brother Nicky in the dug-out as Nicky became Danny's Assistant Manager.  This was also the season I first turned up at Concord and I saw how Danny and Nicky dovetailed each other in the dug-out. Whilst Danny was on touchline driving his side on, cajoling and berating his players at times, Nicky was more studious. He had his ring-binder of set-pieces and formations to be used during the game. Again no stone was being left un-turned. To stand next to the Cowley's in the dug-out was an education in man-management and tactical awareness. But why do the Cowley's work together so well? "They both have the same beliefs in life and of what they want for football. I would say a key factor is there is still that element that brothers have, where they push each other and are not afraid to say what they think to each other or have a row. I'm pretty sure they disagree plenty of times on things behind closed doors, but when it comes to being in front of the players they're 100% focused and together, with a positive mindset to get the job done." was Danny Scopes answer when the question was raised.

Cowley's final season would thrust the club in the public eye as Concord reached the FA Cup 1st Round for the first time in their history. They pulled out League 2 Mansfield Town away from home in the draw.  Concord travelled to Field Mill and didn't disgrace themselves. In fact they excelled. They drew 1-1 at their league opponents and in the replay at the Aspect Arena lost by one goal to nil.  Now Cowley was appearing on other club's radars and it came as no surprise that Danny and his brother left the club at the end of the 2014/2015 to join National League Braintree Town.

That season at Braintree was another rung up a highly successful ladder for the Cowley's as they led part-time Braintree to the National League play-offs and only narrowly lost to Grimsby Town on aggregate.

As Lincoln gain plenty of admirers in Non-League football and beyond for their football, there is no doubt that the future is bright for the Cowley's and who know's what level they could end up at - "As far as I'm concerned the sky's the limit for them both. The only thing that could possibly stop them managing at the very top level is that they weren't household names as players. I find that sad and hope very much that they break the mould and genuinely believe they can manage at Championship level and then...who knows" said Steve King who is probably better to judge than a lot of us having played under Cowley for seven years.

There is an immense feeling of pride with everyone connected at Concord Rangers to see the Cowley's do so well for themselves, and maybe the final word should be with Danny Scopes who was there at the start of Danny Cowley's remarkable journey back in 2007 "I was never in any doubt from the first moment we worked together at Concord Rangers, that they (Danny and Nicky) would go on and be successful in management at non-league level. I think their rise in value from what they did at Braintree last year has really made people stand up and take notice and that has carried on at Lincoln, as we all expected once they got the job. When you watch Lincoln City play, you know you're watching a Cowley team play, and it's great to see."