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Bridging the Gap from Grassroots to Pro - Rhys Barker

'I do believe there is a lot in place for youth footballers now, but the question I ask, is if they know what it takes and if they are doing enough themselves to go on to be a pro...'

Name, age, where are you based?

Rhys Barker, 31, Kent UK.

Current and past Roles:

Welling United U16s (2020/21) – Head Coach

Welling United (2019/20)

Previous roles – coach at Cray Wanderers, Phoenix Sports FC

Academy coach at Southend United 2015/16




BA HONS IN FOOTBALL STUDIES (Southampton Solent University)

How did you get into coaching and what has your path been like?

I got into coaching in 2010 when I left university where I went in to do some coaching in schools as a part time job – mainly multi sports. This was with a coaching provider based in Essex, where I was living at the time.

From there I worked in various small coaching roles, trying to build my experience as a coach. I decided to start an U10s team at Baldon Sports based in Eltham. A great club run by great people! Marc, the chairman there gave me my first role of running a side, so I am forever grateful for that.

After my first season and whilst doing my FA Level 2 coaching badge, I was given an opportunity by my tutor Ian Hart to be part of Southend United as an academy coach. But I moved to Kent and the travel had an effect – So I decided to go back to Baldon Sports and continue with the side at U12s.

From there, I have coached at U13s, U14s and U15s with clubs such as Cray Wanderers and Welling United. In those times, completing my FA Youth Award and UEFA B coaching badge.

Within that I spent some time with a good friend Jordan Clark, at Dorking Wanderers 16-19 scholarship programme, which was an excellent set up and something Jordan should be very proud of.

Any highlights you would like to mention?

Major achievements, I would always look at the development of players I have coached or been around. I am proud to see a lot of players I have coached at a really young age within the Kent area, now playing at the highest level in Kent – with some also going on for trials at professional clubs. I always look back at some of the players I coach now, to where they were 4 or 5 years ago and to see the players they have developed into is the reason we coaches do it.

Our Welling United U15s won the Kent FA County Cup this season, which was a great day out and an added bonus to how the players have developed this season, ready to prepare for an important season of football at U16s next season.

In 2016, I spent a weekend with FC Twente academy O14s, organised by a coach called Abdi Hassan, who I was in touch with at the time. I went there and spent time with the team, and the coaching staff through the RKSV Vogido tournament, which the team ended up winning. 

I got to spend time with some highly experienced and qualified coaches, plus watch young sides from all over Europe including - Alkmaar, PSV, Slavia Praha, Basel, Malmo, FC Nordsjaelland, Helsinki... 

You’ve held a variety of roles in grass roots and player development. What has been you’re favourite role and how have your experiences helped you in a coaching capacity?

I suppose if there was no such thing as grass roots football, thousands of aspiring coaches would never be able to gain experience or try out their ideas with players. Grass roots football is extremely important, and I feel at times it can be taken for granted.

My favourite roles have always been where I can coach and really get into players – I would say my two favourite coaching roles so far to date have been:

Baldon Sports U12s 2016/17 – We just had an enjoyable season and a great team of young players. I had just come back from Southend United, and I felt I had a lot of new ideas to share and a lot of areas to work on. The players were great to work with, training was enjoyable, and the games were great, the players played some eye catching football.

Welling United U15s, 2019/20 – Despite the sudden end to the season, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time this season. The club have been a breath of fresh air and the staff have been very supportive, the group of players are extremely talented and a credit to the club. Training has been of a high level, and it really is a superb age group in Kent – there is so much talent in this area and some of the games we have played this year have been at a high level – that is credit to all the coaches within this area.

In your opinion, how vital is it to have organised programmes for players who aren’t at professional clubs, but have potential talent for development? How are these gaps being bridged and is there anything more that could be done?

It is vital – I think if you ask any youth player – they want to be professional footballer. There are lots and lots of talent around the UK. I do believe there is a lot in place for youth footballers now, but the question I ask, is if they know what it takes and if they are doing enough themselves to go on to be a pro, and then also have a secondary target. Maybe this is an area we need to improve on.

Where we are based in Kent – we have the Kent Youth League, which is a charter standard league and has done great things for the talent in the county to play in well-organized fixtures on good facilities, first team grounds with officials. The Junior Premier League across the UK is also forever growing and thinking of new ideas to bridge the gap for talented players to academy football.

A lot of grass root youth teams now train twice/three times a week, have highly qualified coaches, excellent facilities, videos of games and training to analyse, social media pages – there is so much in place for youth players. When I was playing between 8-14 years of age, we were lucky to have a kit and a decent patch of grass to play on, no such thing as artificial pitches other than some sand-based AstroTurf to train on now and then.

In terms of the players - If academy players are training 4 times a week, and a grass roots player is training twice a week, what is that player doing extra because he/she is already behind? Also, there are no short cuts – playing regular football and training regularly is the most important thing in my opinion. If you are not doing that, I am not sure how you can bridge the gap as a player.

Can you tell us more about your Head of Coaching role with Dorking Wanderers and what was the environment and setup like for the scholarship players?

As mentioned, I joined Dorking Wanderers through my friend Jordan Clark who is the academy director. We was doing our UEFA B together at the time, and we both agreed it would be good to come on board to work together and help build the programme. I was only there for a short stint, but Jordan had already built an excellent programme in his first year.

He had around 20-25 players on the course – They would study a few times a week and train a few times a week, giving that real professional feel. I was not sure what the standard would be like, but I have to say, it was very good and there was a lot of talent on show, as I saw in a few of their games.

Just after I left, the club moved to their brand new facility at Meadowbank – I had a chance to see it when I visited last season and to see a first team game there. The work Jordan has done there is huge! The club are going places and it won’t be long until the first team are in the National Premier, then who knows where they can go from there. They have got a huge amount of support from the local community.

What’s been best for your career development so far and what are to you do to keep up-skilled?

It is difficult to pinpoint any one area that’s been the best. I would love to have a successful career in coaching and I work hard behind closed doors to hopefully have that opportunity one day. At the moment, it is what I do on the side from my working job.

Doing my UEFA B was obviously a huge success for me, not just for the badge but being involved with the tutors I had, one being Keith Boanas. Keith is a huge inspiration to me, meeting him, sharing his experiences and being mentored by him has made me a better coach and person. He gave me a different way of looking at football and life itself.

I think coming to Welling United has been great for me as well. I am thankful to Garry, Brett and Barry for bringing me over to the club – the support structure they have at the club for their youth is something I've not seen before. They have some extremely highly qualified and experienced people at the club, including themselves, and I have learned a lot from them in my first season.

I do a lot of reading, watching football, CPD within the club, CPD with the FA and look to do courses when I have time to do so.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced and how was you able to overcome them?

I think there will be a number of challenges every season for a grass roots coach, especially when it isn’t your profession.

There is a lot of expectation on coaches now to provide everything for a player and a lot of hours go into it, which sometimes isn’t enough for some and that is a challenge itself.

The challenges I have faced, I have overcome just through pure perseverance and love for the sport, but most importantly asking questions of experienced people who have been in similar situations and also having the right people around you, who you can trust.

I always reflect at the end of the season, what I have done well and what I can do better, reflection is important (something Keith Boanas taught me), there is always things you can do better and I have made a number of changes/improvements as a coach since I started out in 2010, and I am better for it.

How’s the future looking, what’s next?

Next season, I will be Welling United U16s head coach and I am looking forward to it!

In terms of the future, I would like to try to complete my UEFA A coaching badge and continue to research new, innovative ways of providing the best coaching I can to players who want to play at the highest level.

In the future, I hope coaching can be my full-time profession. I would like to either have another crack at academy coaching again in that time or be coaching at a decent senior side either in the UK or abroad.

I would also like to help mentor coaches who are starting out or need the support, and to help create new environments for all involved in football – in a football development type role.

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