'2019 was then a bit of a whirlwind. I got to coach at senior level in England for the first time, joining the first team at Stafford Town FC and being a part of the latter stages of a season that ended in promotion...'
Name, age, where are you based?
Luke Williams, 22 years old, Staffordshire, England (originally from Conwy, Wales).
Current and past Roles:
I am currently coaching an Under 10’s side at Pro Pathway in Staffordshire. My past roles include:
Consultant Scout for a club in the English Football League (EFL).
Coach with Stafford Town Football Club (First Team and a junior side).
Freelance Opposition Scout – worked for clubs in the Scottish and Welsh leagues.
Academy Scout at Shrewsbury Town Football Club.
Volunteer Coach with United Through Sport in St Lucia.
UEFA/FAW B Licence, Youth & Senior.
PFSA Level 1 in Talent Identification in Football.
The FA Level 1 in Talent Identification.
FAW Football Leaders Award.
How did you get into coaching and what has your path been like?
I’ve been interested in coaching for as long as I can remember. I moved to England when I was young and the junior team that I played for had a brief affiliation with PSV Eindhoven. I remember going on tour to the Netherlands and watching PSV train – it was when they were managed by Guus Hiddink and had players like Van Bommel, Robben and Park Ji-Sung. Watching them train up close was mesmerising.
We watched them play the next day, but I remember just as much of the training session as I do of the match. The Dutch theme didn’t end there, I was fortunate enough to play at the Development Centres and Academies of several clubs – two coaches that stand out are Rene Mulensteen and Robin van der Laan. I still have old notes and sessions plans that we were given and they still influence me today. As a kid I would always pretend to be a manager – I had my first copy of Championship Manager when I was 9!
My Dad also coached me when I was young and he briefly worked for some professional clubs local to us, which inspired and influenced me a lot. My interest never diminished and I took the first Level 1 course available to me once I hit 16, while volunteering at my old primary school as part of my DofE.
I spent some time volunteering as a football coach in St Lucia, which took me right out of my comfort zone but also gave me the chance to work with a variety of ages and abilities, all in a different country with a different culture. I had a really difficult period personally and spent all of three months trying to attain a degree in Law before coming home to a) try and sort things out on a personal level and b) do some coaching at a local football club while I figured out what I wanted to do.
Realistically, working in football was all I was ever going to do. I got a role as an academy scout at Shrewsbury Town FC, which gave me scouting experience but also meant that I could go and watch training, so I learned a lot from that role. I also got to do some coaching with the pre-academy, including training and matches against other clubs. I don’t coach for the money, but receiving that first payment from a professional football club made me believe that it was possible to pursue this career path if I was prepared to put the work in.
I added to the scouting experience gained at Shrewsbury by doing some freelance opposition reports for some clubs in Wales and Scotland, which gave minimal reward from a financial perspective but put me in a great position for scouting roles that have come along since.
2019 was then a bit of a whirlwind. I got to coach at senior level in England for the first time, joining the first team at Stafford Town FC and being a part of the latter stages of a season that ended in promotion. I attained my UEFA B Licence that summer with the FAW and a blog that I had started up to analyse Wales matches in my spare time resulted in me writing for a bilingual Welsh magazine and appearing on BBC Radio Cymru.
With Stafford Town, I was still coaching both young and senior players, getting a lot of hours in. With the First Team, promotion had seen us go from a league where we were expected to win games to one where the expectation was to fight to stay up. It was a whole new set of circumstances and I learned a lot in a short space of time. I then temporarily stopped coaching to focus on a new role as a scout for a club in the English Football League.
Any achievements or anything you would like to highlight?
My favourite achievement so far is attaining my UEFA B Licence, just because of what it signified for me on a personal level after a rough couple of years. Being a part of a promotion-winning team was also good, but I was only involved for two or three months so I can’t exactly claim too much credit.
My best victory as a coach was in August 2019, for Stafford Town against Hinckley, who are a big club for the level they’re playing at, with a big fanbase. The other assistant coach and I were caretaker managers for the day, with the manager unavailable for personal reasons.
We were short of several players and came back from 1-0 down to win 2-1. It was an unbelievable feeling to win a game like that where we were expected to lose – and I felt as though I read the game well, got the message right at half time and that the substitutions we made changed the course of the game. It was the first senior match that I believed I played a big part in deciding the result of. It is difficult to describe the feeling of a game like that.
My craziest coaching experiences undoubtedly came in St Lucia. Not only was I coaching seniors for the first time, but I was doing so on a terrible pitch that had an international airport to one side and a main road to the other. With planes overhead and cars flying by, all communication had to be as effective as possible and I had to adapt very quickly.
I also had to get used to a culture where it was perfectly normal for players to turn up 30 minutes to an hour late for training – trying to stay in control of a session while operating on “island time” was a huge task for the uptight eighteen year old that I was at the time.
At the beginning of my first session, one of the players booted a ball as high as he could in the air, looked me right in the eye and said “let’s see you control it then”. I managed to bring the ball down as everybody watched, but I dread to think how that first session would have gone if I hadn’t! I was coaching mixed-ability junior school children in the morning, teenage academy players in the afternoon and senior players in the evening. I learned so much out there.
What interests you the most about scouting and analysis roles and how is it influencing the coaching side of your work?
With everything that I do, I am interested in the “how” and the “why”. In football, scouting and analysis work goes a long way towards answering these questions because you can break down the functions of a team and workout the details that make them operate as they do. I love watching different teams and different styles and there is always something to learn and potentially apply to your own coaching and/or footballing beliefs.
As I’m now coaching younger players, scouting and analysis influences my coaching more when it comes to individuals, rather than teams. It can be quite helpful to watch a footballer, analyse their actions and skillset and see if it can be applied to the footballers that you are trying to develop – not to make them clones, but to help them add useful things to their game. You can do this with older players as well, of course.
I’ve had the chance to scout a lot of clubs since stepping away from senior coaching and analysing these clubs has given me some tactical ideas to use, especially at non-league level where you often only have time to implement one or two details in preparation for a match.
What have been some of the most rewarding assignments you’ve completed and in your opinion, what are some of the key considerations to account for in terms of non-technical/skill qualities?
Any opposition scouting assignment that contributes towards a win for your team is very rewarding and it is nice to know that you have played a small part in a victory.
Academy scouting has its rewarding moments when you see players that you’ve scouted kick on and develop, but it has its downsides as well. There was one lad who I was convinced could step into an academy environment but the others involved didn’t see it. Talking of non-technical qualities, he was one of the best communicators I have ever seen for someone of his age (he was U15 at the time). It wasn’t just the fact that he communicated from centre back non-stop all game, it was the quality of what he was saying to his teammates – I watched him run games with his mouth. He was also very dogged and determined, which is a positive of course.
When scouting a team, I always look at how the players react to conceding free kicks and corners. Do they moan extensively about the decision, do they then sulk? Do they moan at one another? Or are they alert straight away? You can learn a lot about a team and its individual players in these moments. It is also a way of seeing which individuals can be wound up, whether people like it or not it is relevant information.
I do the same with managers and coaching staff, how do they react to decisions? How do they communicate, does it escalate and get aggressive? You can sometimes see when managers get caught up in the emotion of something and then end up making a rash substitution or tactical change that they didn’t need to make.
What skills do you think you will need to develop if looking to progress into the Senior game as a career, and what opportunities are available to you to be able to acquire these skills?
A big thing to acknowledge is that reading a game from the dugout is much harder than reading a game from the stands. This is especially true when the pressure is on you to get a good result, as is the case in senior football.
If I’m out scouting and I get a good grasp of a game (or of the player/players I’m there to see) from the stands then I’ll then go down as close to pitch level as I can to spend some time watching from there, which is possible at most grounds lower down in the EFL or in non-league. You can learn a lot from analysing the best teams in the world from the stands or on your laptop, but being pitch-level in the heat of the moment, trying to find a balance between rational analysis and gut instinct, is a completely different ball game altogether. I look to develop my observational skills (and my ability to apply them) by going to as many games as possible.
I also learned a lot from being an assistant in a team of three coaches and when I step back into coaching at senior level (as an assistant or otherwise) I need to be clear and confident on what I bring to the coaching set-up and how I will show this.
I see myself as a good communicator, but I need to develop my communication skills - and my knowledge of how to apply them - further before stepping into the senior game again. There are plenty of opportunities to do this – online learning has obviously been big the last few weeks and there have been some really good online seminars and articles around communication and psychology that I have found useful.
Another skill that I need to develop in order to progress into the senior game as a career is my knowledge of other languages. I currently speak English, Welsh and I’m getting there with Spanish, but I want to be ready to take opportunities wherever in the world is necessary.
One thing that I have done whilst stuck inside during lockdown is play Football Manager in Spanish, so I take what would have been an idle pastime and turn it into a development opportunity, as I learn “football Spanish”. I’ve actually found this to be really helpful.
What’s been best for your career development so far and what are you doing to keep up-skilled?
Honestly, despite all of the opportunities that I’ve had since, the best thing for my initial development was simply coaching kids three times per week at Stafford Town and being exposed to so many aspects of the coaching process on a regular basis.
A uni dropout going through a torrid time, it gave me something to throw myself into but I failed a lot – I ran some terrible sessions, made terrible mistakes at matches – and I would just reflect on those mistakes, acknowledge them and focus on being 1% better at the next session/match.
I also think that conferences are underrated by a lot of the coaches that I know, you can get so much out of these events if you want to. In the current situation where we can’t meet up in large groups, any form of networking is still better than none. Approaching people and communicating are skills in their own right, but you can pick up so much from other people that can be made relevant to your own work if you listen to them about their experiences.
In terms of practicing analysis, I’ve tried to watch a game a day during lockdown – I vary the level and my familiarity with the teams.
Right now, I’m learning Spanish quite intensively, as I have aspirations to work both in Spain and Latin America in the future. I once turned down an opportunity to coach in the Basque Country due to timing, but that is not a mistake that I will make twice – I’ve learned that you as an individual control when it is the “right” time.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced and how were you able to overcome them?
One of the biggest challenges was coaching mixed-ability and mixed-age kids in St Lucia, which included both five year olds with learning difficulties and young teenagers who need to be occupied so they didn’t run into trouble before the afternoon academy session. The only thing that I could really do was get to know each kid as well as I could and find something that could engage them. It could be anything, from talking to them about their favourite Premier League team to just making sure they were by a cone that was their favourite colour. All in all, it was easier said than done.
Something that I found tough was adapting to a situation with Stafford Town, when we were losing most games after being promoted. It was difficult being in a dressing room post-match with a team that had played well but fallen short – and they aren’t kids who want to hear about how well they are developing and how good some of the football that they played was. To be honest, I still reflect on this and will continue to do so before entering senior football again.
How’s the future looking, what’s next?
In the short term, I want to get back to coaching with Pro Pathway. I was looking for a chance to coach in the Foundation Phase and this opportunity came along at the perfect time – I’ve really enjoyed it so far and I can’t wait to get going again once it is safe to do so. The vast majority of the players are knocking on the door of academy level and I believe in my ability to help them kick on but, because most of the lads have experienced setbacks in the past, giving them a positive football experience and putting a smile on their face is the priority.
This might surprise people but my medium-term goal is to have worked, either as a coach or an analyst, in a continental club competition match within three years. As a Liverpool season ticket holder I’ve been fortunate enough to experience many enormous European nights and there is something special about continental football – on any continent, not just Europe. I believe that this is more achievable than people would think and it is a challenge that I have set myself.
Long-term, the goal is to work at the top level as a manager, coach or a coach-analyst. Obviously, everyone dreams of managing the club they grew up supporting, but I think you have to treat the Premier League as just one of many leagues across the world that you may or may not work in, establish yourself wherever you need to and then earn the opportunities that can follow. I would also love to represent my country as Welsh football means a lot to me and working in international football would be a wonderful experience.