Steve is a USSF and UEFA B coach, who is currently enrolled on the UEFA A.
When you first started coaching, did you ever expect you would be coaching in Bulgaria?
My goodness no! Like most coaches, having a defined vision and mission are vital for your own personal growth and development, but we also focus on the day to day tasks of improving and creating players wherever we are. That being said, it’s the global sport, nobody should be afraid of taking their craft anywhere in the world. After all, we are in the giving industry not the taking, and that philosophy should be shared globally.
Going from the USA to Bulgaria is quite a shift. What were some of the biggest adjustments you had to make?
Leaving ones country is not for everyone, we all love our comfort zones but I went into the role with an open heart and open mind to embrace what lay in front of me. Culturally there are differences, communication being the major one, as I didn’t at the time speak the language, but when you treat people with empathy compassion kindness and have a willingness to truly listen to what they have to say, great things happen.
What are some aspects of the role of director of coaching that outsiders may not be aware of?
Great question, and somewhat hard to define, as its definition would change depending on the geographical location, and from club to club. I can tell you I tried to be a mentor, ambassador, project manager, assistant coach to every team, and a sounding board for parents. Ultimately I believe a director of coaching should create a vision, mission and set of core values that produce an educational platform and full service organization that empowers its athletes and staff to fulfil their dreams. Focus on being process driven over results driven and the by product will be something worth being proud of.
What has been your favourite part of the USA to live and work in and why?
It would be really hard to pin down a favourite; I loved Washington DC for its culture as you could literally meet someone from every nation and its deep history. I coached in a high school next door to the CIA at Langley and Vice President Dick Cheney would attend the school to see his granddaughter. Florida had weather beaches and so many attractions it was a lot of fun. The Mid West would be the closest to home with a strong family values, four seasons and a more conservative thought process. They all hold a special place in my heart.
What first attracted you to working in the USA?
It’s a calling to be honest, I knew deep inside I wanted to coach, teach, develop and elevate the minds of football players and at the time that creative environment was very limited in Northern Ireland. Britannia Soccer offered me the a initial platform to express myself as a full time coach providing camps, clinics and technical and tactical training for clubs. I got to travel all over the United States doing what I love to do. I am very grateful for being given that opportunity.
Coming from Northern Ireland, what was the hardest thing you had to adapt to when first moving over to America?
Probably its sheer size, it’s a big place with big roads, big cars, Americans wouldn’t think twice about driving 3 to 5 hours somewhere. Over an hour’s commute to work is very common. Although called the Unites States, ironically I feel like its 50 smaller countries just all joined together, well, 48 of them, all with their own laws, traditions and accents. Having to repeat myself and slowing down how I talked as this familiar confused look on people’s faces would act as a visual cue for me to change something, happened often. Over the years that changed and my good friend Warren Feeney would be quick to point out how weird I talk now compared to before.
Is four years working in Florida as fun as it sounds?
Oh Yes!! I lived about 3 miles from the beach and would go everyday to jog, morning and night. I got to see the Space Shuttle take off in the middle of the night, now that was amazing. Soccer tournaments are very popular in Florida and taking teams to the Disney Showcase was always a highlight. You pretty much are getting into the Disney World of Sport and other attractions for free. Winning a National Championship and getting a letter from the Major of Jacksonville congratulating our club was very special. Florida, geographically, is very long so driving on the highway (motorway) is ironically what I done the most. Driving 6 hours to Miami or 5 hours to Pensacola was just part of the job.
What has been the most useful coaching course you have taken?
Education is like a hobby/pass time for me and I am always on the lookout for a course to elevate my mind. I have just finished Robin Russell’s Sports Path online course called “build your grassroots startup." This is very valuable in finding a business idea in grassroots football and progressing it. It's a great educational platform to learn from. I am very grateful for the opportunity he presented me. The Director of Coaching diploma from the United States Coaches association is another great building block for young aspiring directors.
What are some things you consider to be key when it comes to preparing young players for adult football?
There are many things I could write down, and they would all be relevant and have their place on the developmental ladder, but I would start with intelligence. A 1000 doors and opportunities could present themselves if a player develops their mind first. After that, having a passion, drive and sheer will power not be denied or allow life to get in the way of them achieving their dreams is paramount. If a young player has these traits then the ever revolving Xs and Os of the tactical side of the game become natural adjustments they are more than capable of embracing.
How would you sum up your playing philosophy in an elevator pitch?
Can we be in the Buri Khalifa in Dubai?
To have synergy!! There are three managers I study on a daily basis, Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola who (in my humble opinion) define the direction of the modern game. Guardiola as he understands it’s a moving game of chess and all the pieces need to be in certain places at certain times to achieve a desired result. Tuchel, for his unwavering focus on being precise about being precise, and Klopp, for his emotional maturity, passion and empathy towards players. If I can emulate some of these traits on the training field, then I know I am heading in the right direction.
What do you look for when spotting talented youngsters?
Coachability, shows humility, gratitude and listen skills. Do they actually love what they do? This will serve them well when life tries to derail them from their dreams. Are they technical creative with both feet? This means they may have the freedom to play anywhere in the future, and above all quality speed of thought. The fastest thing on the field is your brain.
What kind of experiences do you recommend coaches seek in order to improve their coaching?
I would have to say go coach little kids, around 7 to 9 years old, immerse yourself in that educational platform where it’s most pure. Where you become the football super hero to your audience and understand the power of teaching in an environment of Joy. It’s a beautiful thing! Then go and lose for a while, losing is for winners. Go and lose games until your ego and hubris make room for your intelligence to take over. This takes time, not everyone grasps this concept, but slowly you realise that quality results and performances are due to the quality of the process you have installed month’s even years before and success, in all its shapes and forms become the by-product of this process.
What are your personal ambitions for coaching?
I am very ambitious but will not ever wavier from my core values. Education wise I want to continue completing my coaching licence until I receive my Pro. Career wise I am very open for where my next project may come from. I have an extensive background in the Women’s game so perusing opportunities with this in mind would be prudent and advantageous. There has been tremendous growth in this area of the game in the UK over the last few years which make it an exciting time to be a Women’s Head Coach.
Has there been a position upon which, looking back, you wish you had more time?
Yes, most certainly and it’s ironic that you ask. My 16-18 year old self. I had a lot of talent at that age, played four years in the Milk Cup, trained with Brendon Rodgers at Ballymena, even got a Cap for Northern Ireland Schools at 17 but achieved all of this with about a 60% work ethic. Once you reach that high standard coaches will not accept a lack of work ethic. I would love to go back and talk to that young naïve kid and re-wire his brain, but such is life.
What kind of impact have you tried to have within the US soccer landscape?
I think I tried very hard to install a more process driven work ethic over results driven. Not just in the application of the personal development of the athlete but the long term building blocks of providing a full service soccer club that caters for everyone’s needs and sets future generations up for success. There was a major shift is this direction when US Club came on the scene around 15 years ago and built a more club centric structure over the USYSA team centric model. They changed everything!! Now it’s all very different with the federation having its own academies.
If you could ask one question to a top coach, who would it be and what would you ask?
Klopp. Can I have a job, just joking, no, but seriously? I got to ask Warren Feeney 1000 questions and all of which he took the time to answer and much more. Being a Liverpool fan since 4 years old I know I am emotional compromised when it comes to Klopp, but the guy is just amazing. I would ask him the following.
In seeing a pattern where the Carabao Cup, Premiership, Champions League and FA Cup all have Pep, Tuchel and yourself still in the running or already won, or have won it for many years, (Carabao Cup – Man City), and knowing the three of you focus heavily on the intelligence side of the game, what advice would you give to young coaches to embrace this new and exciting trend?
For someone who had never coached in the USA, what do you think would be most striking to them?
How much they get right!! We all measure things by the point of the sword, and it would be easy to say Americans are not any good at football because their Men’s National team are not a force on the world stage, and although that statement may have some merit, that is not a clear indication of their youth system, which in many ways may be the best in the world. In my humble opinion the States get a lot of things right, up to around the age of 16-17, then a major shift takes place. 18-22 also becomes a problematic due to a strong pull towards the college system. But, with a little research and an open mind you would be amazed by the structure, registration figures and educational platforms some of the top clubs provide.
What changes do you feel need to be made to the American youth development system?
Offer a dual pathway for College players to still peruse their dreams. Don’t restrict them to 12 weeks of college soccer a year, especially after being in a 44 weeks a year structured program in their youth. Of course that’s easier said than done.
Their “Pay to Play” system still requires some work as way too many kids fall through the cracks. Again, I don’t have solutions, so don’t really feel I have the right to bring up problems without finding solutions first. And finally on the ground level focus more on “high ball rotation”, over coaching and under training is way too prominent. Less from us equals more for them!!
If you had a magic wand, what changes would you make to football in general?
I would love to change many things; the female player should be revered not laughed at, especially those in the Super league that give their life 24 hours a day to improving their craft. The organization Women in Football, are doing great things to empower the female athlete. Ok, don’t laugh at me when I say this, and keep an open mind. I would change two major areas which would bear fruit in about 10 years.
1. Change the playing format globally. 3v3 ages 4-7, 5v5 ages 8-10, 7v7 ages 11-12, 9v9 ages 13-14 with 11v11 only coming into place at age 15.
2. Tied (drawn) games have a dead point. What if we took that point and trained Refs to look for the following, from ages 11 onwards gave a bonus point to the team that builds the ball out of the back, (ages 11-12) and teams creating more passing sequences (ages 13-14).
I wonder what the professional game would look like after kids being immersed in this environment for 10 years. If I could change two things only, I think that’s probably what I would choose more than anything else.