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

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