'I think because these boys are so talented, it is easy to get carried away and make everything too serious too soon...'
Name, age, where are you based?
Paul Gray , 39 years old, Preston, England.
Current and past Roles:
Lead Foundation Phase Coach, Head of Pre-Academy & Development Centre’s – Preston North End Football Club
Lead Foundation Phase Coach, Head of Pre-Academy – Blackpool Football Club
Lead Foundation Phase Coach, Head of Pre-Academy – Accrington Stanley Football Club
FA Level 4 (UEFA A) Coaching Football
FA Advanced Youth Award
Premier League Elite Coaches Apprenticeship Scheme (ECAS)
FA Level 3 (UEFA B) Coaching Futsal
FA Level 2 Talent ID
BA (Hons) Sports Coaching
How did you get into coaching and what has your path been like?
I actually started coaching at the age of 15 when I was games captain at school. I’d help the PE teacher with the sessions for all the different year groups. It was a great introduction at such a young age and I’ve loved coaching since then.
Initially I coached in grassroots working with my local club and then moved in to delivering sessions for Blackburn Rovers In the Community. I did this whilst working for the family business and playing a bit myself. It wasn’t until a life changing moment that I decided to really pursue coaching as my career. After my dad survived a heart attack he encouraged me to ‘wake up every day and do something I love’. So I packed my bags and went to work in the US for 9 months, coaching every day in a variety of programmes throughout the east coast.
I loved every minute and knew that was the path I wanted to go down. University at the age of 27 came next and this opened doors at my local professional club, Preston North End where I worked in various roles with the girls teams, the womens senior team, the centre of excellence development centre and the community programme. I wanted to get as much experience and as much variety in my coaching as possible to enhance my academic learning.
I then felt ready for a centre of excellence (now academy) role but unfortunately it didn’t materialize at PNE so I moved to Accrington Stanley where I quickly went from part time U11 coach to full time Lead Foundation Phase Coach before moving on the Blackpool in the same role.
Working for Accrington and then Blackpool has helped me so much as a coach and as a head of department. Having to be creative, innovative and to use the resources available to me in the best way possible has allowed me to deliver programmes to a high level with a limited budget.
I eventually found my way back to PNE and will soon be starting my 6th season looking after the younger players at the Academy.
Any Major achievements?
Proud to see players who I have worked with for a number of years becoming successful young adults in a variety of roles from professional footballers to football freestylers, college scholarships, business owners and many many more. I love hearing them and their families talking fondly of the times they spent with me as their coach.
I travelled to Zambia in 2008 for three weeks to deliver sessions promoting health messages through sport and physical activity. Another fantastic learning experience which gave me more variety on my coaching journey.
Big named players coached?
Current Liverpool GK Andy Lonergan went to my school and I coached him at dinner times!! Hopefully there will be some big names coming through soon at PNE!!
I also coached Liv Cooke who is a world champion football freestyler from the age of 10 to 15
What main experiences have you been able to pick from all of the professional clubs you’ve worked at, which have been able to be used in other roles?
I’ve been lucky to have worked with and for some great people and had a variety of valuable experiences. At Accrington Stanley we were a very small staff and we were able to get really close to the first team staff, interact with them and watch them work. It was great to watch and speak to people like Paul Cook, James Beattie and Leam Richardson and see how they looked to play and how they went about their day to day work.
At Blackpool Richie Kyle and John Murphy took the very successful U18 Academy team at the time and they not only had success winning leagues and cups but also developing players who have gone on to have successful careers in the football league like Bright Osayi-Samuel, Dion Charles, Dom Telford and Harrison McGahey. It was great to watch how these two coaches worked with the players in different ways and gelled so well as a partnership.
When I moved to Preston to work under Nick Harrison and Stuart Delaney I was immediately impressed with the processes and procedures in place at the academy and how well run and organized the club was. Having everything in place and a clear way of working gives the staff a framework to work to but also some freedom in terms of how they deliver.
I have always had a thirst for knowledge and look to learn from all the experiences I have. It’s been an interesting journey so far and I look forward to what comes next!
In your opinion, what are some key areas that academy coaches can focus more on away from the technical and skill aspects, to support developing of the person?
I think it’s important to remember that we are working with children. They aren’t mini professional footballers. Let them play and enjoy their childhood. The programmes we design and deliver should reflect this.
I think because these boys are so talented, it is easy to get carried away and make everything too serious too soon. If we make sure they have some amazing experiences whilst they are with us and we stretch them and support them at the right times, I’m sure great young people will come out at the end of the process whenever that might be and whatever they end up doing.
What have been some of the key common areas of focus for the players, and was there any area which needed development more than others, which have been occurring between the different academies?
Being based in the North West of England which is a hotbed of football can be a real positive (great games programme) but can also be a real challenge as well (recruitment).
With clubs like Liverpool, Manchester City, Everton and Manchester United so close we are never going to be able to get the talent that shouts, so the most technically gifted, best game understanding or physically outstanding at the clubs I’ve worked for. It’s getting more difficult with Burnley and Wigan investing heavily in their Academies.
So we have to be clever with our recruitment and confident in our coaching programme, games programme and personal development programme. This is an area of real interest for me and I was inspired during a recent visit to AZ Alkmaar to research more in to this area.
Through your time as an Academy Coach, have you seen any shifts in how youth coaches are delivering sessions and can you see any future trends which will play a big part in delivery (or should)?
I have seen a huge shift in the last 10 years or so. I think the players want to know more now. Why are we doing this? How does this relate to the game? Is this making me better? In my experience there is a real rationale behind the sessions being delivered and the focus isn’t purely on technical and tactical aspects but also on the psychological and social aspects of the game.
There are a number of clubs using cognitive testing and brain training in their programmes and it will be interesting to see the results of this. With analytics playing an increasing part in football, I’m sure it won’t be long before we see this in the recruitment of young players.
What’s been best for your career development so far and what are you doing to keep upskilled?
In terms of courses I have done the FA Advanced Youth Award and the Premier League ECAS experiences were probably the best I have done for different reasons. AYA really delved in to how young players learn and how we can understand them better and then in turn use that information to decide how to shape and deliver our programmes for these young children.
ECAS looked more at developing me as a person and allowed me to have some great experiences along the way. Not only do these courses help you learn and develop but they allow you to extend your network. I’ve met some great people and made some lifelong friends along the way.
I think if you go in to every job, every course and every networking opportunity with an open mind you will always take something from it.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced and how was you able to overcome them?
There have been times along the way where resources have been limited which can impact on the opportunities you can give to young players in terms of facilities, games programme, tours and tournaments. There is always a way to get these opportunities on a limited budget if you work hard enough and can be innovative and creative.
How’s the future looking, what’s next?
At the moment I see myself working in Youth Development for the foreseeable future and developing young players and developing coaches. I love working at PNE and I love working in the Foundation Phase but I am ambitious and would definitely like an Academy Manager role in the future. I have always been given autonomy in my roles and managing the Foundation Phase, Pre-Academy and Development Center departments is like running a mini Academy itself so I’d be confident I could step up to the role.
I would like to continue my education as well, I’m currently looking at a Masters – either something specific and research based or in Sport & Business Management.